As regular readers of this blog know, I've basically moved on from writing about pop music to writing full-force about cooking and restaurants on Cook In / Dine Out. But I didn't want the year to go by without sharing my list of the best albums of 2012. I may not be writing about music, but it's still part of my life.
1. Taylor Swift - Red. Not what I expected would top my list, but it's a work of undeniably great
2. Saint Etienne - Words and Music by Saint Etienne. I'd never listened to Saint Etienne before, but I fell hard for the British indie-dance group's eighth album, the year's best work of dance pop. Essential: "Over the Border," "I've Got Your Music," "Popular."
3. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange. Ocean's mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, made my list last year, when I said he was tipped to break out as a major star this year. Couldn't have been more right about that--Ocean's success is one of the year's biggest music stories. His background almost overshadows the soulful beauty of this R&B debut that deftly mixes old-school sensibility with modern electronic production. Essential: "Thinkin Bout You," "Super Rich Kids," "Lost."
4. Jessie Ware - Devotion. British singer Ware's Devotion offers up gorgeous electronic pop. A stunning debut that sounds best after the sun goes down. Essential: "Wildest Moments," "Running," "Sweet Talk."
5. Jack White - Blunderbuss. White Stripes are over, but Jack White continues to make great music. This solo work, nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, is as close as we've gotten to a White Stripes album as good as Elephant. Essential: "Missing Pieces," "Hypocritical Kiss"
6. The XX - Coexist. I devoured The XX's 2009 self-titled debut (I listed it as #4 on my 2009 recap, but, in retrospect, it deserved #1). This follow-up is almost as good, residing in similar slinky, minimalist synth territory. Essential: "Reunion," "Fiction."
7. Mumford & Sons - Babel. The British folk rockers' second album managed to cement their status as one of the world's hottest bands, a unlikely status for sure, but certainly deserved after the success of their first album. Similar to and probably just as good as Sigh No More. Essential: "I Will Wait," "Hopeless Wanderer."
8. Rihanna - Unapologetic. Rihanna's seventh (!) album is markedly better than her disappointing Talk That Talk and more consistent even than her 2010 hit Loud. Basically, it resurrects the dark themes from Rated R and wraps them around a mash-up of pop stylings a la Loud or Good Girl Gone Bad. Essential: "Loveeeeeee Song," "Stay."
9. Maccabees - Given to the Wild. Although it's the third album from the British rock group, the atmospheric Given to the Wild is something of a breakthrough for the group. Essential: "Ayla," "Pelican."
10. Bruno Mars - Unorthodox Jukebox. Mars avoids the sophomore slump with this naughty but still lovable second album, kissed with touches of Motown, disco and even The Police. A worthy successor to Doo-Wops and Hooligans. Essential: "Locked Out of Heaven," "Moonshine."
11. Beach House - Bloom. Baltimore "dream pop" group's fourth album is lovely and lush. Let it float you away. Essential: "Myth."
12. Alicia Keys - Girl on Fire. It's been awhile since I bought an Alicia Keys album. This, her fifth, shows Keys is still the classiest act in R&B. It's tempting just to listen to her beautiful piano intro over-and-over, but then you'd miss her singing, which seems to only get better. Essential: "Girl on Fire."
13. Daughn Gibson - All Hell. A little bit country, a little bit rock & roll and a lot of darkness is a good way to describe Gibson's haunting solo debut. Essential: "A Young Girl's World."
14. Pink - The Truth About Love. Now onto her sixth album, Pink continues to prove she's one of pop music's most consistent, if not under-appreciated, talents. Essential: "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)."
15. Fun. - Some Nights. This indie pop group made a big splash this year with their energetic second album. Essential: "We Are Young."
16. Scissor Sisters - Magic Hour. "Let's Have a Kiki" may have become a gay dance club anthem this year, but it's only one reason to love the fourth album from this just-outside-the-mainstream pop group. Essential: "Only the Horses."
17. Maroon 5 - Overexposed. Maroon 5 looked to be on the way out (or at least down) after their third album, Hands All Over, initially failed to generate a major hit. Then came The Voice, "Moves Like Jagger," and this album's massive first single, "Payphone," (and it's even bigger follow-up, "One More Night") and the band is hotter than they've ever been. A true pop music comeback story. Essential: "One More Night."
18. Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again. This soulful debut from the BBC Sounds of 2012 winner reaches back to the '70s for its lush, gentle melodies. Essential: "I'm Getting Ready."
19. Emeli Sandé - Our Version of Events. Another retro-soul album, but totally different from Kiwanuka's. I like her best when she throws a little trip-hop in the mix, like "Heaven," which plays like a sequel to Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy." Essential: "Next to Me."
20. Escort - Escort. I wouldn't call this "retro" or "new disco," it's just plain disco, so faithfully does it reproduce the sound of dance music from 1978-1980. Essential: "Caméleon Chameleon."
21. Christopher Guglick - Earth Shaker. if you like piano-based singer-songwriter pop, here's a name you should become familiar with. He's not big yet, but just wait. I think bigger things are on the way (Guglick is reportedly working on a dance pop album for 2013--can't wait). Essential: "Hold on Tight."
22. Twin Shadow - Confess. The new wave revival may be rather long in the tooth at this point, but Twin Shadow's Confess makes a case for keeping it around just a little bit longer. Essential: "Five Seconds."
23. Madonna - MDNA. Madonna makes me list, but considering that most of her other albums would have topped the equivalent lists for their release years means this album was a disappointment, lacking the consistency and creativity she's known for. Nonetheless, there are some gems here, including the ballad "Masterpiece," which would have sounded at home on 1995's Something to Remember. Essential: "Girl Gone Wild."
24. Esperanza Spalding - Radio Music Society. Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding won the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011 and followed it with this, her fourth album. Essential: "Black Gold."
25. Robbie Williams - Take the Crown. Reinvigorated by fatherhood and the recent Take That reunion, Williams continues to prove he's one of pop music's singular voices. Take the Crown is more synth-driven than his other albums and continues to show his typically good hear for a pop hook. Essential: "Candy."