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50 Best Albums of 2012

Frank Ocean reimagined R&B; Dylan drenched us in blood; pop-punk vets, disco orchestras and Scottish oddballs made an election year bearable.

50 best albums 2012

Frank Ocean reimagined R&B; Bob Dylan drenched us in blood; pop-punk vets, disco orchestras and Scottish oddballs made an election year bearable.

 

Contributors: Jon Dolan, David Fricke, Andy Greene, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Jody Rosen, Rob Sheffield, Rob Tannenbaum, Simon Vozick-Levinson

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Frank Ocean, ‘Channel Orange’

Ocean made headlines because of his sexuality, but he made history with this music. The 25-year-old singer’s second album is the most exciting R&B breakthrough in recent memory; Ocean evokes L.A. decadence (“Super Rich Kids”), his stripper girlfriend (the nine-minute “Pyramids”) and crushing out on a guy (“Bad Religion”) over plush, dark-tinted grooves that update Stevie and Marvin for the post-Drake era. His brags about his “great gray matter” aren’t just geek-chic bluster: Channel Orange unfurls new mysteries with every listen.

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Bruce Springsteen, ‘Wrecking Ball’

Bruce Springsteen‘s 17th album is rock’s most pointed response to the Great Recession: a song suite explicitly for the 99 percent, as largehearted, and as righteously wrathful, as any album he’s made. Wrecking Ball rages at corporate oligarchy and economic injustice. “Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill/It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill,” he bellows in “Shackled and Drawn.”

It’s Springsteen’s most walloping and adventurous release in decades. He and producer Ron Aniello merge the sweep, heft and rumble of the classic E Street sound with modern flourishes: mariachi horns, electronica grace notes and, in the gospel-flavored “Rocky Ground,” a rapped verse nearly as stirring as Springsteen’s chorus courtesy of Michelle Moore, a previously unknown backing vocalist. In places, the master salutes his protégés: “Death to My Hometown” winks at the Dropkick Murphys, with pennywhistles piping over a burly Celtic reel; the title track, an ode to the late Giants Stadium and an F.U. to Father Time, wails like Arcade Fire.

But Springsteen’s vision is his alone, and its scope – musically, politically, morally – is vast. In “We Are Alive,” Springsteen’s “we” includes striking 19th-century railroad workers, 1960s civil rights martyrs and Mexican migrants. Then there’s the capacious, whiplashing “We Take Care of Our Own,” an infuriated protest about the failure of America’s social compact, and the campaign theme for the newly re-elected president. “There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home,” Springsteen laments. But ultimately, Wrecking Ball holds out hope: that, someday, “the promise, from sea to shining sea” will be kept.