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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

18

Nas, ‘Life Is Good’

Every time Nas puts out a new record, someone says it’s his “best since Illmatic.” This one actually might deserve that title. Cut in the wake of his divorce from Kelis, his 10th album is honest in a way that’s rare for hip-hop – from “Bye Baby,” where Nas struggles to make sense of the failed relationship, to “Daughters,” where he confronts his parenting lapses. Always a master storyteller, he leavens these personal moments with plenty of richly detailed street drama, delivered over soul-flavored hard-knock beats that are like comfort food for East Coast rap heads.

17

John Mayer, ‘Born and Raised’

“I don’t want a world of broken things,” Mayer sings on his fifth album. Steeped in California country rock and Seventies sensitivity, Born and Raised has its share of soft, soothing attempts to make us all whole again (“Love Is a Verb”). But the dude with the Benetton soul and the David Duke dick made more news by addressing his own spotty past and busted-up sense of self: “It sucks to be honest and it hurts to be real,” he sings over tender, Claptonian guitar on “Shadow Days.” It’s a shot at redemption that’s as on target as anything he’s done.

16

Cat Power, ‘Sun’

The idea of the brilliantly morose Chan Marshall making a dance-rock record is almost absurd. Yet the groove-powered Sun is a perfect fit, channeling the spangled gloom of the Eighties post-punk and synth pop that Marshall grew up with, through chilly electronic color washes and pencil-neck drum-machine rhythms (imagine a femme Joy Division). When she sings “Your world is just beginning” with Iggy Pop on the Bowie-esque epic “Nothin But Time,” it’s clear the woman is steeling herself for some twists and turns – in her life and her music.

15

Dr. John, ‘Locked Down’

In New Orleans, death is often mourned with a joyful second-line parade of music and dancing. Dr. John used Locked Down to celebrate his beloved Crescent City, which was nearly killed by rightwing neglect after Hurricane Katrina. In a piqued growl, he sings about drugs, poverty, “gold diggers [and] money wasters.” With production and corrugated guitar by Black Keys mastermind Dan Auerbach, the 72-year-old mixes rock, funk and even Afrobeat to describe a soggy wasteland where honest men have equal fear of the KKK and the CIA.

14

Best Coast, ‘The Only Place’

Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino is still besotted with the glorious sulk of Sixties girl-group pop and the awesomeness of California living (“Why would you live anywhere else?” she wonders on the surf-rock title track). But with L.A. producer/pop historian Jon Brion on board, the tales of boredom, touchy friendships and shaky relationships on her second record open up and brighten up – half of them even break the three-minute mark. And with less reverb-y guitar haze to hide behind, her voice comes into its own as one of indie rock’s mightiest.

13

Leonard Cohen, ‘Old Ideas’

At 78 years old, the dapper Canadian sage came back to whisper his heavier-than-ever poetry about sex and spirituality, complete with bedroom scenes like “I’m naked and I’m filthy/And there’s sweat upon my brow.” As a man who never really sounded young he was well into his thirties when he dropped his classic debut album in 1967 – Cohen adapts to this uncharted age with a lifetime’s worth of grace and wit. Best lines: “I dreamed about you, baby, you were wearin’ half your dress/I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?”

12

Jimmy Cliff, ‘Rebirth’

Jamaica’s original pre-Marley pop star came back full force in 2012 with a warm, wondrous album that plays like a guided tour of the island’s musical past, as well as Cliff’s own. There’s ska, rock steady, roots reggae, a revelatory cover of the Clash‘s “Guns of Brixton” delivered in Cliff’s trademark soulful tenor, grittier but still lovely more than 40 years after his debut. The chorus of “Reggae Music,” an autobiographical account of his early career, sums it all up: “Reggae music making me feel good/Reggae music making me feel all right now.”

11

Mumford & Sons, ‘Babel’

The biggest little string band on the planet followed the surprise pop success of 2010’s Sigh No More with a bigger, bolder set of folk revival jams. Babel is an arena-size strumfest, pumping barn-raising choruses into the U2 stratosphere. Marcus Mumford rains down Bible-thumping doom like a Puritan divine, giving his evocations of love, guilt and longing an epic sense of historical weight and moral drama: “The pull on my flesh was just too strong,” he sings on the fallen-soul’s lament “Broken Crown.” His bone-deep sincerity is pretty strong, too.

10

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Psychedelic Pill’

Appearing alongside his memoir and the history-lesson covers set Americana, this is as inspiringly strange as anything he’s done. It opens with the 27-minute “Driftin’ Back,” a free-associating timeline that morphs from coffeehouse folk to charred Crazy Horse jam. Feedback and flashbacks, sentimental and not, flow between inspired moments of old-coot humor (“Gonna get me a hip-hop haircut!”), all peaking with the 16-minute “Walk Like a Giant,” a doo-wop noise-metal Sixties lament that goes out stomping. Like a giant, indeed.

9

Japandroids, ‘Celebration Rock’

Two punk-rock dudes from Vancouver bang out a classic of lion-hearted, red-blooded guitar blasts, barreling out of the gate with the manic chant they fire off in “The Nights of Wine and Roses”: “Don’t we have anything to live for?/Well, of course we do!” Japandroids’ second album roars like the lost Replacements record between Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, except with any hint of self-defeating indie neurosis kicked to the curb – instead, singer-guitarist Brian King and singer-drummer David Prowse go for pure tonight-we-ride bravado.

8

Green Day, ‘¡Uno!’

Green Day took a vacation from sweeping rock operas and spent 2012 banging out hot, hook-mad punk rock like it was 1994 all over again. The first installment in their ¡Uno!¡Dos!-¡Tré! album trilogy flails and bashes and rants like a spiky dervish – from the Clash-disco of “Kill the DJ” to the mod-Who blood rush of “Carpe Diem.” Billie Joe Armstrong blitzes past his 40th birthday without losing the bullshit-calling rage that keeps a man young, cranky and always on the lookout for girls who think “Won’t you be my bloody valentine?” is a cool pickup line.

7

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, ‘Here’

Does sandal-wearing late-Sixties revivalism seem a little hokey in 2012? Well, that’s exactly what makes the 10-member troupe of L.A. neo-hippies’ second LP such an achievement. They’re not just convincing, they’re musically on fire, spooling out tuneful hymns like they’re passing out free joints in the parking lot at a Dead show. Frontman Alex Ebert sings earnestly about love and spirituality, letting his mind wander pleasantly over the band’s homespun harmonies and easy-going folk-psych instrumentation. There’s gospel country, spaced-out chorales and back-to-the-land jamming; it’s a cosmic campfire singalong, broadcasting live from a magical place where the Age of Aquarius never ended and every Jesus beard in the house is completely unironic.

6

Kendrick Lamar, ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’

The year’s most talked-about major-label rap debut turns out to be worth all the hype. An immersive concept album about growing up on Compton’s gang-scarred streets, good kid, m.A.A.d city is packed with vivid stories painted in complex moral shades. Lamar’s rhyme schemes are intricate, his confidence infinite (“I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower/So I can fuck the world for 72 hours,” he raps on “Backseat Freestyle”). No wonder Dr. Dre gave him a record deal: The West Coast hasn’t seen such a dazzling street poet in a generation.

5

Fiona Apple, ‘The Idler Wheel Is Wiser . . .’

The year’s most exquisite musical tantrum is also the most thrilling record of Apple‘s 15-year career. Her voice is all over the place – heaving, squealing, mewling and growling; the multitracked “Hot Knife” suggests an all-female gospel quartet in heat, and the full-body animal hollers in “Regret” (singing about “hot piss”) are downright frightening. The music – stripped-down and entirely acoustic – is rangy, strange and gorgeous. It’s a record that makes the simple act of being alive sound as scary and out of control as it too often is.

New Bob Dylan Album - Tempest - Set For September Release on Columbia Records. (PRNewsFoto/Columbia Records)

4

Bob Dylan, ‘Tempest’

Dylan‘s 35th album is typical of his astonishing late-career rejuvenation: teeming with wit and history, marinated in a couple centuries of folk and pop music, from Celtic waltzes to doo-wop balladry. Tempest is soaked in something else, too: blood. The body count is astronomical, from the epic title track’s retelling of the Titanic disaster to the dulcet “Soon After Midnight,” where Dylan sings of a rival lover: “I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.” Fifty years after his debut, he’s still rock’s greatest bard – and its most fearsome badass.

3

Jack White, ‘Blunderbuss’

White‘s solo debut is our first chance ever to hear him truly cut loose, unencumbered by anyone or anything other than his forked imagination. A down-home freakout recorded with a killer band in his adopted hometown of Nashville, Blunderbuss bursts with mutated Memphis soul (“Love Interruption”), crunk-Kiss swag (“Sixteen Saltines”) and hippie jazz folk (“Take Me With You When You Go”). The recently divorced White uses his self-made soapbox to shout about the wages of love – and every hypocritical kiss on the record hits like a hammer.

2

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.

1

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.

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