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. Of course, not everything was unexpected: The mainstream continues to grasp for relevance, and resonance is more easily found off the beaten path.
The more personal pop 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 -- he earned six nominations, including in three major categories (record, album of the year and best new artist). But it was this sterling debut, released in July, that lit the fuse. Ocean is a key figure in what Spin magazine dubbed the "alt-R&B" movement, having successfully distanced himself from hip-hop collective 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 albums. 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 Mika 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 a 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. One of 2012's most lauded major-label debuts, Lamar is a formidable storyteller, bringing listeners along for the harrowing and the mundane. From the hyperspeed rhymes ( Backseat Freestyle is flat-out astonishing) to 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 middle-class 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 continuing to clamor 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, penchant for deft wordplay and outsize personality, none of it would hang 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 was satisfied with his loyal audience. Instead, for 3 Pears, his first record of largely self-penned material in seven years, he stripped down his Bakersfield-indebted sound, collaborated with a most unlikely ally (quirky 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, drained of everything except having a good time.
Best pop concerts
1. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (ACL Live at the Moody Theater at South by Southwest in Austin, March 15)
He's called the Boss for a reason. For nearly three hours, New Jersey's poet of the streets captivated a space the E Street Band rarely finds itself in anymore: an intimate theater. Special guests aside -- watching Springsteen howl We Gotta Get Out of This Place alongside the Animals' Eric Burdon was a treat for the ages -- the music came full circle, beginning and ending with perhaps Springsteen's greatest inspiration: Woody Guthrie.
2. Rufus Wainwright (Meyerson Symphony Center, Oct. 14)
He can't get arrested by mainstream-music fans, but Wainwright remains undeterred. His spectacular showing at one of Dallas' finest concert spaces ran the emotional gamut, from the poignant opener Candles (in honor of his late mother, Kate McGarrigle) through to the truly bonkers finale, which involved a giant sandwich, the devil, Wainwright dressed as a Greek god and audience members dancing onstage.
3. Father John Misty (Sons of Hermann Hall, May 25)
Pity those who weren't crowded around the foot of the Sons of Hermann Hall's historic stage in late May. They missed what could arguably be called the epitome of the live-music experience: Joshua Tillman, in a shade under an hour, rambling through most of his superb FJM debut, Fear Fun, and subverting expectations (social and sonic alike) at every turn. A special night.
4. Ben Folds (Bass Hall, April 27)
While Folds would return with the reunited Ben Folds Five later in the year, it was this solo showing in Fort Worth that lingered most memorably. Performing with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (in a bravura performance) and alone, Folds had a capacity crowd tingling with joy -- and happily flinging obscenities at that gorgeously appointed ceiling.
5. LeAnn Rimes (Bass Hall, Jan. 28)
A rocky personal year notwithstanding, one of country music's more formidable talents demonstrated precisely why she has endured for more than a decade with her turn alongside the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. As she rendered classics anew -- Blue was positively heartbreaking -- and previewed material for a forthcoming album, it was the sound of a sweet homecoming.
6. Frank Ocean (South Side Music Hall, July 20)
It was hot inside and out for this midsummer stunner. A show that sold out in what seemed like seconds -- packed to the walls with people straining to see the stage -- was all over in about 65 minutes. But Ocean, just days removed from the release of his superb Channel Orange, brought his A game. The freshly minted Grammy nominee's next trip through will be in a much, much bigger room.
7. First Aid Kit (Kessler Theater, Oct. 13)
Sometimes, all you need is a voice -- or, in the case of Sweden's buzzy First Aid Kit, two. That would be Johanna and Klara Soderberg, whose sold-out showing at this Oak Cliff gem was utterly transfixing. Whether showcasing their own smart slices of alt-folk or giving new life to Simon & Garfunkel classics, the stillness of the attentive audience spoke volumes.
8. Miranda Lambert (Gexa Energy Pavilion, May 12)
The Lindale native rocked her biggest local stage yet, balancing the personal and professional like a seasoned pro. Although she brought out her side-project pals the Pistol Annies for a brief, rollicking interlude, the sold-out evening was wholly Lambert's, culminating in a heartfelt rendition of The House That Built Me. Next stop: Cowboys Stadium.
9. Alison Krauss & Union Station (Verizon Theatre, May 5)
Time seemed to stand still -- in a good way -- while Alison Krauss and her bandmates filled the Verizon Theatre with beautiful music. Hers is a voice bordering on angelic, embedded in frequently gritty evocations of mountain music but just as often the centerpiece of glowing folk-pop. It had been far too long since her last visit; let's hope her next trip through town is booked soon.
10. The Civil Wars (House of Blues, Jan. 21)
On what seems like a permanent hiatus by year's end, John Paul White and Joy Williams were riding high in January, touring behind the critically acclaimed Barton Hollow. The pair's voices mesh to mesmerizing effect, and by silencing the usually talkative House of Blues, achieved the impossible: a rapt Dallas crowd engaged with the haunting music being made onstage.
Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic, 817-390-7713