The 10 best albums of 2012, led by Frank Ocean’s visionary R&B
December 20, 2012 9:08PM
Lollapalooza, Frank Ocean, in concert on the Google Play Stage Saturday evening. August 4, 2012. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
To hear Thomas Conner’s 10 favorite songs of 2012 — and selections from his favorite albums — go to blogs.suntimes.com/music.
Updated: January 24, 2013 6:17AM
The 2013 Grammy nominations are diverse — finally — with no clear front-runner and at least six leading artists. That reflects a wide-ranging and decentralized pop music culture, one showcased throughout 2012.
Here are my picks for the best albums of this whirlwind year:
1. Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange” (Def Jam)
Much of the diversity of 2012 was encapsulated within R&B, from Miguel’s fresh beats to the Weeknd’s cool mystery. Above it all strolled shy, moody Frank Ocean, a thoughtful artist who crafted an album brimming with genius and vision — one that would have attracted its now nearly universal acclaim even without the publicity stir caused by Ocean’s mid-summer revelation of a same-sex relationship. Ethereal, gauzy, held together by force of will alone and mixing classic soul harmonies with soft, glitchy rhythms, “Channel Orange” balances smooth singles (“Thinkin Bout You”) with ambitious suites (“Pyramids”), synthesizing traditions while establishing his own.
2. Tame Impala, “Lonerism” (Modular)
Braiding countless indie-rock tropes with the best strains of 1970s psych-pop, from Paul McCartney to Todd Rundgren, this Australian group’s sophomore album is the gift that kept on giving all autumn. Its sweet swirls of guitars and synthesizers make a heady mixture of melody and occasional menace that’s maybe not so tame, after all.
3. 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” (Epic)
Returning to action after seven years, Apple is as emotionally taut as ever on what is possibly her most arresting record to date. These 10 uneasy-listening gems condense the dark, lurching cabarets of Kurt Weill and Tom Waits into claustrophobic headspaces. They’re the kind of performances you listen to with your phone in hand, 911 dialed, your finger poised over “send” because she’s clearly about to let someone — or herself — absolutely have it.
4. John Fullbright, “From the Ground Up” (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers)
This Grammy-nominated studio debut showcases the kind of singer-songwriter folks (or at least folkies) often discuss in terms of how many are produced per generation. A humble Okie hailing from Woody Guthrie’s hometown, Fullbright builds on the depth of another home-stater, Jimmy Webb, to craft romantic lyrical poetry and pulpit-worthy portents.
5. Japandroids, “Celebration Rock” (Polyvinyl)
Yegods, another indie-rock guitar-drums duo. But what make Japandroids stand out as something considerably greater than Canada’s answer to the Black Keys are their way with melody, their on-stage combustion and their blessed lack of a national blues heritage. Vancouver’s Brian King (guitar) and David Prowse (drums) thrash about with a tuneful New Wave zeal and prove they’re the only duo this year truly not sorry for party rocking.
6. Bhi Bhiman, “Bhiman” (Boocoo)
The requisite “who the hell …?” entry in my year-end list, Bhi Bhiman is a St. Louis native of Sri Lankan descent strumming out witty, intelligent songs with an arresting, Bill Withers-marries-Nina Simone voice. His wholly engaging self-titled debut pours out confident, simple musicianship and deft, delightful songwriting see-sawing between topical humor and heartbreaking romance. Spotify, then testify.
7. Emeli Sandé, “Our Version of Events” (Capitol)
Sandé is the complete package. An accomplished and certainly versatile songwriter (she’s written songs for dozens, from Susan Boyle to Tinie Tempah), and a forceful collaborator (Wiley’s retread of “Never Be Your Woman”), she released a debut that’s a fresh R&B breeze — easy pop melodies and a confident, alluring way around an arrangement. What this Scotland native may lack in artistic narrative vision, she more than makes up for with the unwavering power and clarity of her voice.
8. Grimes, “Visions” (4AD)
You might not think Claire Boucher’s thin, creepy, baby-doll voice could sustain an entire album, then you look up and realize 13 tracks have passed while you’ve been staring into space, hypnotized by the witchy wonder of Grimes’ “Visions.” Swinging between a light touch on ’80s synths (in tracks that evoke a few “Poltergeist,” “they’re heeeeeeere” chills) and a scowling mash on contemporary dubstep glitch (justifying her summer tour alongside Skrillex), Grimes’ music vibrates into this plane of existence via wispy half-melodies and (somehow) timeless dance constructs.
9. Jack White, “Blunderbuss” (Third Man)
Finally with a moment to himself — after years as the hub of the White Stripes, the Dead Weather, the Raconteurs and more — Jack White on his whimsical solo debut hopscotches through the bloozy guitar raunch that we expected, as well as folk, country, ’70s soft-rock and Stax soul. It could’ve been a vanity toss-off, but wound up with a Grammy nomination.
10. Robert Glasper Experiment, “Black Radio” (Blue Note)
Hip-hop wunderkind, jazz juggernaut, this young Texas native pianist knits a new kind of fusion on his Blue Note debut — an open-minded glide through jazz and soul, primarily, but also R&B, rock and pure pop. Crowded by a motley crew of guests (Erykah Badu, Ledisi, Meshell Ndegeocello, Lupe Fiasco and more) and capping the set with a ghost-in-the-machine cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Glasper never rests on a gimmick, propelling every command performance with confidence and grace.