Best Music of the Year 2012

Last year I was a few months late with my 'best of" list. This year I'm at least four months early. The downside is that there will be a few great fall releases that don't make it on my list. The upside is I get to be first in line.

Best Pop Albums

Beach House Bloom

No album this year was as packed with great, swooning pop songs as Beach House's Bloom. That's a great accomplishment in and of itself. But there's also Beach House's track record to consider: 2010's Teen Dream was a sublime collection of songs, and I'll be damned if Bloom isn't a slightly richer and better group of songs. That takes a lot of hard work and rigor and inspiration. I'm deeply impressed and delighted...and grateful.

Points of Reference: Yo La Tengo, Wye Oak

Standout tracks: The Hours, Wild, Wishes, On the Sea

Best Singer-Songwriter Albums

Cat Power Sun

Low and behold, it sounds as if Chan Marshall, in her own idiosyncratic way, is trying to write a radio hit. "Cherokee" and "Sun" and "3,6,9" could fit in nicely on pop radio (if only programmers had better taste.) But that hardly matters. Sun will have lots of admires. The first third of Sun has a lot of vibrancy and appeal, and the last third of the album has some haunting and elegant songs that roll along with Marshall's spectacular, chanting voice. By my reckoning, this is the most accessible and satisfying album from Cat Power yet.

Point of reference: Cat Power

Standout Tracks: Cherokee, Ruin, Manhattan

Fionn Regan 100 Acres of Sycamore

It's a worrisome thing when one of the best singer-songwriter-folk albums of the year never even got a proper release in America. I'm not sure what happened, but the arrival of 100 Acres of Sycamore barely made a blip on the US radar. That's a shame because these songs are as haunting and lovely and deeply lived-in as those on Regan's celebrated debut album The End of History. There's an abundance of riches on 100 Acres of Sycamore, including a few sweeter pop lullabies. Of all the albums released in 2012 this one is most deserving of a second chance.

Points of reference: Nick Drake, Iron and Wine

Standout Tracks: For a Nightingale, The Lake District, The Horses are Asleep

Fiona Apple The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

These are nimble and subtle and smartly-arranged pop songs. When it comes to Apple's lyrics, there are several or more turns of the phrase that feel truly inspired. The advance word on this album was that it was complicated and required real work to enjoy. That might be true of a few tracks, but the majority of the songs are quite easy to love, and the piano ballad "Valentine" feels like a new classic.

Points of reference: Aimee Mann, Tori Amos

Standout Tracks: Valentine, Anything We Want, Regret, Werewolf

Kat Edmonson Way Down Low

I suppose the proper thing to do is file Way Down Low under Contemporary Jazz and classify Kat Edmonson as a Jazz Vocalist in the style of Billie Holiday. Fair enough. But the album strikes me as somewhat unclassifiable. Yes, Edmonson has a delicate, girlish voice, and the arrangements of these mostly classic songs feel properly jazzy. But the album is exquisitely quiet. A few tinkly piano notes and Edmonson's whispery voice have a powerful effect. Her rendition of "Whispering Grass" is lovely and strange and fills me with awe.

Points of reference: Rickie Lee Jones, Joanna Newsom, Billie Holiday

Standout Tracks: Whispering Grass, I Just Wasn't Made for These Times

Frank Ocean Channel Orange

Admittedly, my knowledge of R & B doesn't run very deep. But Channel Orange has a lot to give when it comes to appealing beats and velvety smooth vocals. It's an album full of rich, emotional songs (and also playful and sometime not-so-interesting interludes.) What's more impressive is that there's shrewd storytelling and sharp insights in Frank Ocean's lyrics. He's able to dissect and comment on a certain kind of privileged California lifestyle and place these ruminations in songs with soaring melodies. And in the last quarter of the album he writes some aching and affecting love songs.

Points of reference: Stevie Wonder, Al Green

Standout Tracks: Pyramids, Lost, Sweet Life, Bad Religion

© 2010-2012, John Dalton

Photo of cabin used in illustration by StormeTX

Others used in illustration by Katharine Roberds

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