Considered as a whole, the music of 2012 was a year of subtle reinventions.
Familiar genres considered from fresh perspectives; career artists finding creative rejuvenation; new talents making searing debuts -- the sounds of the past 12 months have been full of pleasant surprises.
Personal albums left the biggest impressions this year; a sense the musician was making something to express him or herself, rather than angling for heavy rotation or commercial placement. It is these songs and records that will endure far beyond the flurry of year-end listmaking and awards ceremonies. These are my picks for best albums of the year.
1. Frank Ocean, 'Channel Orange'
The man born Christopher Breaux ended the year bathed in potential Grammys glory -- his nominations in all four major categories (record, song and album of the year, and best new artist) make him the first artist to be so honored since Amy Winehouse -- but it was this sterling debut, released in July, that lit the fuse. Ocean is a key figure in what Spin dubbed the "alt-R&B" movement, having successfully distanced himself from Odd Future's raucous spectacle. The intimate, intense Channel Orange, given wings by Ocean's heavenly voice, conveys its creator's lust, pain, confusion and ennui through a series of indelible, atmospheric songs whose cumulative power is overwhelming.
2. Mika, 'The Origin of Love'
Steadfastly ignored by the American public, press and radio, British singer-songwriter Mika (real name: Michael Penniman) responds by fusing disco melodies, multilayered harmonies worthy of Freddie Mercury and a distinctly 21st century attitude about sexuality to create one of the year's truly irresistible offerings. Sparkling tracks like Lola, Emily and Stardust balance the introspection of Underwater or Kids, making The Origin of Love 2012's most compulsively listenable record. Even if Stateside ears never catch on, one hopes he continues turning out slick masterpieces such as this.
3. Father John Misty, 'Fear Fun'
Breaking away from pastoral folk revivalists Fleet Foxes, idiosyncratic troubadour Joshua Tillman struck out on his own with this sharply observed collection of songs evoking no less than Harry Nilsson. Corrosively funny, achingly romantic and wonderfully untethered to any particular musical genre, the record's very title suggests a weightiness -- or, more accurately, a dourness -- that's scarce in even the bleakest of moments on Fear Fun. From first track to last, this is one beautiful, uplifting bummer.
4. Rufus Wainwright, 'Out of the Game'
Basking in the glow of new fatherhood and recent marriage to his longtime partner, the 39-year-old Wainwright unwinds over the course of this gorgeous return to form, lamenting maturity even as he embraces it. Producer Mark Ronson strikes the perfect balance between Wainwright's baroque tendencies and his songwriting lineage, which allows Candles, a poignant farewell to Wainwright's late mother, Kate McGarrigle, and the sleek, disco-chic of Bitter Tears or Jericho to co-exist peacefully. Call it the portrait of the artist as a happy, contented soul.
5. Kendrick Lamar, 'good kid m.A.A.d city'
On perhaps the first essential West Coast rap album of the 21st century, Lamar manages the neat trick of paying homage to the sounds of his Compton youth while crafting tracks that feel of-the-moment. In one of 2012's most lauded major-label debuts, Lamar proves himself a formidable storyteller, capable of hyperspeed rhymes ( Backseat Freestyle is flat-out astonishing) or verses bordering on narcotic. good kid m.A.A.d city is that most rare of beasts: an instant classic, resonant whether you grew up in the ghetto or flyover country.
6. Perfume Genius, 'Put Your Back N 2 It'
Seattle-based musician Mike Hadreas performs as Perfume Genius, an act whose songs are often so delicate and troubled that one's first impulse is to give the record a comforting hug. But Hadreas keeps listeners at arm's length, weaving eerie imagery into his haunting soundscapes: "AWOL Marine/Turn toward the camera/Slowly," he sighs early on. Put Your Back N 2 It is ghostly, sobering and thoughtful, like dispatches from a shadowy room inhabited by a tender, damaged spirit.
7. Kathleen Edwards, 'Voyageur'
This Canadian singer-songwriter remains a criminally overlooked talent, and even with a production assist from Grammy winner (and now ex-boyfriend) Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame, Edwards is still a mystery to many music fans. Use this bracing collection -- much of which, ironically, considers the aftermath of her divorce from longtime collaborator Colin Cripps -- to get acquainted with her singular ability to break your heart and eviscerate herself ( House Full of Empty Rooms is perhaps the year's most shattering song).
8. Big Boi, 'Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors'
Arriving just days before year's end, this sprawling sophomore solo effort should quiet those clamoring for fresh Outkast material. The man born Antwan Patton displays a flair for blending left-field collaborations (buzzy indie-rock outfits like Phantogram, Little Dragon and Wavves pop up) with a smartly curated guest list (Kid Cudi, T.I. and A$AP Rocky drop by). But without Big Boi's dexterous flow, deft wordplay and outsized personality, none of it hangs together as astonishingly well as it does.
9. John Mayer, 'Born and Raised'
His reputation bruised after an eyebrow-raising round of press in 2010 and his career threatened by a granuloma near his vocal cords, Mayer returned with this low-key effort, not exactly chastened by the experiences, but certainly a little wiser and more weary. Teaming with producer Don Was, Mayer embraces a '70s country-rock aesthetic and finds solace in speaking plainly: "Well, it sucks to be honest/And it hurts to be real," he sings on Shadow Days. Throw in appealing curios like Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967 and growing up never sounded so good.
10. Dwight Yoakam, '3 Pears'
Nearly three decades into his career, it would be understandable if Yoakam simply punched out an album every couple years, hit the road, and satisfied his loyal audience. Instead, for 3 Pears, his first record of largely self-penned material in seven years, Yoakam stripped down his Bakersfield-indebted sound, collaborated with a most unlikely ally (hipster icon Beck) and delivered an immensely satisfying compilation of originals and a couple terrific covers ( Dim Lights, Thick Smoke chief among them). It's country music the way nature intended.