It was a year without masterpieces. Instead, 2012′s best pop music albums felt more like weird friends. They crashed our parties, passed out on our couches and ate all of our Golden Grahams in the morning. Now we’re pals.
Also, I said masterpieces. There was one. It came from Frank Ocean, a 25-year-old R&B rookie whose summer opus, “Channel Orange,” exploded the emotional possibilities of contemporary pop music. At his best, Ocean was sharing deep secrets with a universe of strangers — an approach he parabolized with “Bad Religion,” a ballad about unloading your spiritual confusion on an anonymous taxi driver.
And while nobody came close to matching Ocean’s quiet intensity this year, that doesn’t mean 2012′s best albums lacked quirk, courage or character.
Best friends forever — maybe. Best friends for now — for sure.
The top pop music albums of 2012
1. Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange”
As a singer, songwriter and storyteller, Ocean is every bit as fluid as he is commanding, delivering songs crammed with moods, memories and detailed characters — all sung by a protagonist who’s earned himself a place among the greats.
2. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “Psychedelic Pill”
There’s a big, ugly future coming to bury his generation, and Young is not gonna take it. The latest from the rock legend and his trusty band is jammy and cagey, demanding and rewarding, thick with improvisation and rife with the fury that gushes when you refuse to let a changing world change you.
3. Jessie Ware, “Devotion”
With so many British chanteuses willing to abuse their lungs in the name of American soul music, this 28-year-old stands out by being subtle. Her voluptuous debut — it landed in Britain this year and is expected to see stateside release in 2013 — wisely aspires to match the classiness and confidence of Sade.
4. Future, “Pluto”
While Drake and his imitators continue to preen on the fault line between singing and rapping, this Atlanta sensation rhymes in Auto-Tuned grumbles. Future doesn’t sound like a breakout hip-hop star so much as a Delta bluesman’s android descendant.
5. Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang, “En Yay Sah”
Nabay electrifies traditional bubu music from his native Sierra Leone with a hand from some Brooklyn rock musicians — but leaping oceans and centuries is this album’s secondary achievement. The real triumph is how Nabay makes his jittery dance music race across our ears without dropping any of its sweet, high-def sensuality.
6. Fresh and Onlys, “Long Slow Dance”
What exactly do we expect rock-and-roll to do in the 21st century? It can’t rule the world. It probably can’t change it, either. But it can still shimmer and glow and jingle and jangle, and make your heart ache in 4/4 time. These San Franciscans prove it.
7. Kellie Pickler, “100 Proof”
On her third album, this “American Idol” survivor finally uses that big voice to sing big songs about no-good men, absentee parents, the ghost of Tammy Wynette and her own backbone, which suddenly sounds as if it were made of aerospace-grade titanium.
8. A Tribe Called Red, “A Tribe Called Red”
Dance music is obviously designed to make our groove things shake, but the best stuff can be paralyzing. Try not to freeze when you hear this Canadian DJ trio mesh Native American music with crushing electronic dance rhythms.
9. Dierks Bentley, “Home”
Seems like every man in Nashville wants to be the Nashville Everyman. Here, Bentley actually pulls it off, singing from various vantages with smarts and charm. Bonus points for the patriotic title track, which still sounds sensible after an election season that left America covered in red-and-blue bruises.
10. Laurel Halo, “Quarantine”
On the physical plane, this innovative singer-producer resides in Brooklyn, but her fantastically forlorn, severely synthetic pop songs sound native to the great digital everywhere.
The top pop music singles of 2012
1. Robbie Williams, “Candy”
2. Tanlines, “All of Me”
3. Juicy J, “Bandz a Make Her Dance”
4. Bleached, “Searching Through the Past”
5. Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round”
6. Fun., “We Are Young”
7. Shooter Jennings, “Southern Family Anthem”
8. Usher, “Climax”
9. Icona Pop featuring Charli XCX, “I Love It”
10. Popcaan, “Only Man She Want”