Sunday, December 16, 2012

Best Albums of 2012

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 country pop songs, creating a mix of sounds that still adhere cohesively into an album. Swift's greatest work yet, showing the consistency of her last album, Speak Now, with the pop hooks of her 2008 Grammy Album of the Year-winning Fearless. Essential: "I Knew You Were Trouble," "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," "Red."

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."