This year, more than most, there was a big drop-off for me between a top four albums I loved and dozens more I merely liked. And with my listening habits, like most, becoming more and more oriented around individual tracks, I'm giving equal weight this year to albums and singles.
Top 25 Albums
1. good kid, m.A.A.d city — Kendrick Lamar (Aftermath/Interscope): In an increasingly and aggressively solipsistic form (hip-hop or pop writ large, take your pick), one of the many things that's so impressive and righteous about this sprawling headphone-hip-hop debut is how Lamar's own Compton coming-of-age story is packed with different characters, stories, and perspectives without being overpacked with guest stars. There hasn't been a rap record rooted in this kind of diverse, generous sense of modern black life since Kanye West's The College Dropout.
2. Older Than My Old Man Now — Loudon Wainwright III (2nd Story Sound): An old folkie with a warm, funny, fearless career album about, well, getting old. About reaching an age his father never reached. About outliving an ex-wife. About medications and memories of sex. About almost being "free of the shame and the doubt" and aching for a do-over.
3. Perfectly Imperfect — Elle Varner (RCA): The most celebrated soul album of the year (Frank Ocean) was R&B for art-rock fans. The best was R&B for R&B fans, except smarter, more decent, more relatable, and more concrete than any genre cohort in recent memory.
4. Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables — Todd Snider (Aimless/Thirty Tigers): An intensely purposeful return to form, in Snider's own sidelong way. Partly it's the songs, which sharpen his class animus (anthem of the year candidate: "New York Banker"), but it's also a rattling uniformity of sound — inspired by the wobbly roots rock of Bob Dylan's Desire and Neil Young's Tonight's the Night — that makes Snider's underclass vignettes motorvate.
5. R.A.P. Music — Killer Mike (Williams Street): You can have your Rick Ross. This former Outkast protégé is my rotund Southern rapper of choice. On this breakout — full title: Rebellious African People Music — Mike's targeted bark ("We some money-hungry wolves and we down to eat the rich," he snaps on "Big Beast") is backed by golden-age production (from New York indie icon El-P) that would have sounded good on Radio Raheem's boom box.
6. 1991 — Azealia Banks (Interscope): Her double-dutch rap "212" was the most exhilarating single of 2011, and on this four-song EP she adds three more almost as good.
7. Attack on Memory — Cloud Nothings (Carpark): I'll credit homebase Cleveland for this '90s-esque indie-rock band feeling appreciably homelier than competing blog-rock acts. Their midpoint evocation of the Nirvana-Archers of Loaf continuum of indie/alt sounds like guys discovering themselves instead of just discovering old records.
8. 12 Bit Blues – Kid Koala (Ninja Tune): With Gary Clark Jr.'s full-length registering as a minor disappointment, I'm willing to call this bracing turntablist pastiche the "blues" album of the year.
9. Europe — Allo Darlin' (Slumberland): The songwriting isn't quite as precise as on this Brit indie-pop (don't say twee) band's eponymous 2010 debut, but the band is sharper on the fast ones, singer-songwriter Elizabeth Morris' excellent taste (there Chiffons, Johnny Cash, Graceland; here the Go-Betweens and Toots & the Maytals) is still entirely her own, and her heart is still as strong as a drummer.
10. Sing the Delta — Iris Dement (Flariella): A voice I can't quit, and with 16 years between original albums, I'm glad she didn't quit on it either.
Honorable Mentions: Write Me Back — R. Kelly (RCA), Blunderbuss — Jack White (Third Man/Columbia), Bouger Le Monde — Staff Benda Bilili (Crammed Discs), The Truth About Love — Pink (RCA), Kaleidoscope Dream — Miguel (RCA), The Carpenter — Avett Bros. (Island), Transcendental Youth — Mountain Goats (Merge), Red — Taylor Swift (Big Machine), Nehru Jacket/Wild Water Kingdom — Himanshu/Heems (Greedhead), The Idler Wheel ... — Fiona Apple (Epic), Call Me Sylvia — Low Cut Connie (lowcutconnie.com), Channel Orange — Frank Ocean (Def Jam), Boys & Girls — Alabama Shakes (ATO), Wrecking Ball — Bruce Springsteen (Columbia), Cruel Summer — G.O.O.D. Music (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam).
Top 25 Singles
1. "Call Me Maybe" — Carley Rae Jepsen: After about three listens, this joined "Since U Been Gone" and "Umbrella" on the short list of the new century's most undeniable pop songs. If you're one of the seven people in the country still holding out, I don't know how to help you.
2. "Adorn" — Miguel: Sexual healing goes digital, with raindrops-and-rubber groove and onomatopoeic vocal throb.
3. "Move Fast" — Galactic featuring Mystikal & Mannie Fresh: Crunk hits middle age: "Hold up!/Look/I'm 40, baby/Go slow."
4. "Dream Baby Dream" — Neneh Cherry & the Thing: "Buffalo Stance" icon teams with Scandinavian jazz trio for epic, slow-burning, skronk-jazz cover of no-wave nugget. The least foreseeable great record of the year.
5. "Merry Go Round" — Kacey Musgraves: In a lousy year for country singles, here's a late-breaking, debut-single savior from a Nashville hopeful not concerned with making nice: "We get bored so we get married/And just like dust we settle in this town."
6. "We Take Care of Our Own" — Bruce Springsteen: Exhortation with an aftertaste. Cynicism and faith battling it out like Robert Mitchum's two fists. In other words, the first classic Springsteen single in a quarter-century.
7. "Go Away" — The Coathangers: Or, "Don't call me so much, maybe?"
8. "Womyn" — Himanshu: Good-hearted dork, preaching: "Women/You're great!/On behalf of men/Thanks!"
9. "Refill" — Elle Varner: Showing her competitors that brainy and erotic aren't mutually exclusive.
10. "Daughters" — Nas: Giving old rival Jay-Z a preview of coming attractions. And maybe you too.
Honorable Mentions: “Hit Me” — Mystikal, “Bad Girls” — M.I.A., “Oh What a Night” – Elle Varner, “Climax” – Usher, “Reagan” — Killer Mike, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” – Kendrick Lamar, “Serpents” – Sharon Van Etten, “Grown Up” – Danny Brown, “Love Interruption” — Jack White, “Don't Owe You a Thing” – Gary Clark Jr., “Hold On” — Alabama Shakes, “Big Beast” – Killer Mike, “Runaway” – Imperial Teen, “Disparate Youth” — Santigold, “In a Big City” — Titus Andronicus.
1. Mr. M — Lambchop (Merge) and Shut Down the Streets — A.C. Newman (Matador): Twenty years into Lambchop's long run and 10 into Newman's, neither should be releasing their best albums in 2012. But Mr. M, which was marked by Kurt Wagner's gently soulful vocals, examines loss and aging in a tone that's simultaneously solemn and playful. Meanwhile, Shut Down the Streets added burbling synths to Newman's rambunctious power pop, which made these survivor anthems sparkle.
2. good kid, m.A.A.d. city — Kendrick Lamar (Aftermath/Interscope) and Channel Orange — Frank Ocean (Interscope): Dormant for too long, West Coast hip-hop surged in 2012, with two innovative artists evoking different L.A. neighborhoods with cultural insight. Ocean's breakout was set among the privileged kids of Beverly Hills, which allows him to plumb romantic yearning and class friction. Lamar cruised the same Compton streets that label boss Dr. Dre rode a quarter-century ago, which became a backdrop for a novelistic tale of a guy tempted by the city's violence but steadied by his family's spirituality.
3. Occasion for Song — Black Swans (Misra) and Young Man in America — Anaïs Mitchell (Wilderland): The Black Swans and Anaïs Mitchell recorded the two best storyteller albums of the year. Head Swan Jerry DeCicca wandered the haunted landscape of Ohio, dogged by the death of a friend and bandmate. Mitchell took a broader view of recession-era America and all its riches-to-rags downfalls.
4. Sing the Delta — Iris Dement (Flariella) and Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables — Todd Snider (Aimless): These two indefatigable '90s holdouts have spent years shirking convention and making increasingly idiosyncratic country music. The key to Snider's success may be his savvy deployment of a righty music toward lefty ideals, but his stoner sense of humor cuts his agnostic outrage. Dement isn't as topical, but she writes about the South like a longtime expat, singing the Delta to feel more at home. It's impossible to tell what evokes the region more affectionately: her literary lyrics or those deep-fried horns.
5. O Be Joyful — Shovels & Rope (Dualtone) and Bloom — Beach House (Sub Pop): The economic realities of the digital era have caused many bands to whittle down their membership, but these co-ed duos show just how much you can do with less. Beach House made a mighty noise on its fourth album, which was criticized for sounding like their third. Big deal: Bloom struck the perfect balance between an enormous sound and a very personal scope. Shovels & Rope were never quite so polished, which was precisely the point: The more rambunctious and squirrelly O Be Joyful sounded, the better it was. Their DIY country proved slyly smart, alternating between rock-critical explications of their sound and baby-making jams slinky enough to make you yell, "Get a room!"