It was a strong year for music with artists old and new making music that resonated deeply. Below are my top 10 albums of the year along with another 10 that could have been contenders. To see my Top 10 singles, go here. My colleague Katie Hasty prepped a video package of her top albums as well. To view that, go here.
1. “Channel Orange,” Frank Ocean: A striking debut from an artist who seemed to arrive fully formed. It’s not just his writing or singing or musicality, it’s also the unguarded emotion that he brings to every song. He examines love in all its forms. His influences, including Stevie Wonder and Prince, are along for the ride, but he still delivered a collection that felt unique.
2. "Babel," Mumford & Sons: Bolstered by Marcus Mumford’s furious guitar playing and Winston Chambers’ ringing banjo work, “Babel’s” tells of the search for grace and redemption are all the church you needed in 2012.
3. "Three Pears,"Dwight Yoakam: In his first album of original songs in seven years, the neo-honky tonk pioneer creates some of his most soaring, jangly melodies, referencing all of his idols, from the Beach Boys to Elvis Presley to, of course, Buck Owens. Beck produced two cuts to help get Yoakam started, but the album comes from a singular, still resonant voice and heart.
4. "Little Broken Hearts," Norah Jones: Working with Danger Mouse brought out a previously hidden recklessness and menace to Jones’ work. Sweet melodies are juxtaposed against murderous thoughts, such as on “Miriam.” It’s a stunningly dark album that covers betrayal, debilitating hurt, shame, the desire for revenge, and, ultimately, the ability to walk away, bowed but not broken.
5. "Wrecking Ball," Bruce Springsteen: The foremost chronicler of America once again sums up the current national zeitgeist in all its beauty and horror and gives voice to our hopes and fears. Full of cathartic anthems, Wrecking Ball” sets it sights on the devastation and destruction wrought on the middle class and increasingly growing lower class, by Wall Street and venomously takes prisoners.
6. "Some Nights," fun.: The trio sounds like Queen crossed with Barenaked Ladies. Each of the songs are several songs wrapped up in one, unified by Nate Ruess’s sweeping, supple vocals. From the big drums to the big melodies to the big vocals, fun. exemplified what’s best about pure pop music this year.
7. "The Carpenter," Avett Bros.: A glorious look at life and death, with the focus on death. The North Carolina brothers run the gamut of human experiences on their seventh album, a rambunctious, largely acoustic affair, with a joy and depth missing in so much of today’s music.
8. “Unorthodox Jukebox,” Bruno Mars: This would have been higher on the list if it weren’t for Mars’ occasional lapses into bitterness and misogyny on such songs as “Natalie” and “Money Make Her Smile,” but those blights are overcome by the extremely well-crafted melodies and Mars’ song craft. Leave out the tunes about the golddiggers and focus on beauties like “When I Was Your Man,” “If I Knew” and “Locked Out Of Heaven.”
9. "Looking 4 Myself," Usher: There’s really nothing Raymond Usher can’t do, whether it’s bust out a full dance or contemplate what it means to become an adult. The reflective “Looking 4 Myself” finds Usher in a thoughtful mood about love and his life, especially on the gorgeous “Climax” (just listen to his searing falsetto). His confidence as a performer leads him to an embrace of many different music styles and adventurousness missing from some of his past work. An underrated effort that will hopefully find a more appreciative audience as years pass.
10. "Red," Taylor Swift: While not an album I go back to frequently, “Red” makes the list because of the abandon and artistry Swift took when creating it. Her musical evolution since her debut six years ago is nothing less than staggering and on “Red” she exhibits a fearlessness when it comes to embracing different styles. Almost every song features drums way upfront in the mix and an aggressiveness of purpose. Sure, the singles are catchy, but album cuts such as her atmospheric duet with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and the Cranberries-like “State of Grace” are worth rooting out.
TEN OTHER ALBUMS I GREATLY ENJOYED
“A Thing Called Divine Fits,” Divine Fits
“Blunderbuss,” Jack White
“The Truth About Love,” Pink
“The Only Place,” Best Coast
“Uno,” Green Day’
“Bloom,” Beach House
Shields, Grizzly Bear
"Lonerism," Tame Impala
“Slipstream,” Bonnie Raitt
“Born and Raised,” John Mayer
What were your favorite albums of 2012?