Best of 2012: Top 20 Albums

It might be 2013 already but damn it, I spent time trying to rank my top albums of the year so I’m going to tell the internet about it. This list was originally conceived as a top 25, but when trying to whittle down, I found that the while the top 20 was clear cut, there were a bunch of albums fighting for the next five spots. Instead of attempting to arbitrarily discern between those, I’ll just list them as honorable mentions before getting to my top 20. (I’ve also attempted to make a list of top 100 singles of 2012, though I doubt I’ll ever properly rank/post that. But I will post my top singles of 2012, it just might end up being a top 3.)

Honorable Mentions: Woman To Woman – Keyshia Cole, Write Me Back – R. Kelly, R.E.D. – Ne-Yo, channel ORANGE – Frank Ocean, Two Eleven – Brandy, Heaven – Rebecca Ferguson, Wild Ones – Flo Rida, Halcyon – Ellie Goulding

And on to the top 20:

#20 Some Nights
fun.
Listen To: “Some Nights (Intro)”, “Some Nights”,
“We Are Young”
Admittedly, I only really like half of fun.’s Some Nights, but that’s an incredible feat of strength given my predisposition to abhor anything even alternative-adjacent. And the half of the album I like, I love. The songs are filled with wall-to-wall sound that booms and crashes in orchestral swells. It’s dramatic and theatrical to achieve the best sort of bombastic glory. And mostly, it’s full of anthem-like pop hooks that just beg to be belted at the top of your lungs.
#19 Right Place Right Time
Olly Murs
Listen To: “Troublemaker”, “Head To Toe”,
“One Of These Days”
Right Place Right Time helps to fill the straight-up male pop void that’s existed for years. The melodies bounce over plucky guitars and keys and light beats. The album sounds more than a bit like a Maroon 5 record, less slick than Overexposed and more fun than Songs About Jane. (Also distinctly more British on tracks like “What A Buzz”.) From start to finish, it’s catchy and bright, making it one of the year’s most enjoyable albums to listen to.
#18 My Head Is An Animal
Of Monsters and Men
Listen To: “King And Lionheart”, “Mountain Sound”,
“Little Talks”
If someone had told me Of Monsters and Men were an Icelandic indie folk band before I heard “Little Talks”, I’m certain I wouldn’t have given My Head Is An Animal a chance. Fortunately, I was hooked by the joyous horns in “Little Talks” first and fell into the rest of the album later. While the rest of the album has distinctly less pop sensibility, it still moves and has a strong focus on melody amid all the interesting instrumentals. The album’s sound is strikingly cohesive whether the songs are slow and soft or loud and brash.
#17 Kaleidoscope Dream
Miguel
Listen To: “Adorn”, “Where’s The Fun In Forever”,
“Arch & Point”
In case you were wondering, R&B music is all about sex. And well, Kaleidoscope Dream is R&B music done right. Whether he’s being sensual or gritty, urgent or coy, Miguel hits all the perfect moods to create a truly atmospheric listening experience. The album’s craft makes it feel like an instant classic, while its creativity keeps it fresh and contemporary. Oh, and on top of being a great vocalist, Miguel also lent his talents to writing and producing most of the album.
#16 Promising Promises
Jon McLaughlin
Listen To: “The Atmosphere”, “What I Want”,
“Maybe It’s Over”
Even if most of Promising Promises is just a repackaging of Jon McLaughlin’s self-released Forever If Ever, it’s still worthy of any praise I can heap upon it. The runaway star of the album is Jon’s piano skill, which is on full display on every track. Though, it’s the funky bass line on “The Atmosphere” (one of the few new tracks) that elevates that song. Anyone with even moderately positive feelings towards piano pop needs to have this album in their library.
#15 Overexposed
Maroon 5
Listen To: “Payphone”, “Daylight”, “Lucky Strike”
It’s no surprise that Maroon 5 is all over the radio, given that Overexposed is the band’s most pop-oriented effort yet. The album pairs their signature infectious hooks with glossier production to create some of the slickest earworms ever. The upbeat tracks feel like they’re brimming with hyperactive energy and even the ballads are charged with a little extra pop-oomph. Overexposed was a clear grab at mainstream pop trends that succeeded in every way.
#14 Looking 4 Myself
Usher
Listen To: “Climax”, “Dive”, “Numb”
Usher is one of the few stars who can produce quality R&B/hip-hop songs and quality dance songs. He does both considerable justice on Looking 4 Myself, though thankfully the album leans much more heavily to the former. Usher remains the best and most versatile male R&B vocalist and flaunts it from the smooth “Show Me” to the flawless “Climax”. Combine that with some of the best production around and, well, it’s a winning formula.
#13 Once Upon Another Time
Sara Bareilles
Listen To: “Sweet As Whole”, “Bright Lights And Cityscapes”
If it were a full album instead of an EP, Once Upon Another Time would rank much higher. All five tracks are immaculately written, sung and produced. From the crackling log fire that starts “Once Upon Another Time” to the weighty keys that end “Bright Lights And Cityscapes”, the album feels like a modern fairy tale: full of magic, wistful and with a princess who spews “fuck that guy, he’s just an asshole.” The track that includes that line, “Sweet As Whole”, would be the moment in the Disney movie where the princess finds herself in a rowdy pub full of commoners, only in this version she’s got the saltiest mouth and is leading the bar sing-along.
#12 Strange Clouds
B.o.B
Listen To: “Bombs Away”, “So Good”, “So Hard To Breathe”
With this album, B.o.B continues to prove that he’s in a league of his own when it comes to pop-styled rap. Strange Clouds is full of B.o.B’s mellifluous verses complete with smart rhymes and effortless flow. While the album employs a slew of features from Morgan Freeman (yes, you read that right, Morgan Freeman) to Taylor Swift, it certainly doesn’t rely on them; “So Good” and “So Hard To Breathe”, two tracks performed solely by B.o.B, are among the strongest and most infectious of the album.
#11 +
Ed Sheeran
Listen To: “The A Team”, “Drunk”, “The City”
Ed Sheeran’s debut is startlingly upbeat and rhythmic for someone expecting typical singer/songwriter fare. He spends a hefty portion of the album in a rapid-fire rap state, spitting through dense wordplay and quirky cadences with a breezy touch. More typically, the instrumentation stays sparse and raw and the ballads are all about drawn-out sentimentality. If nothing else, + is certainly the most British album you’ll hear around.
#10 Unapologetic
Rihanna
Listen To: “Pour It Up”, “Jump”, “Stay”
I can always count on Rihanna to put out one or two songs per album that I like. Usually, though, that’s it. That’s not the case with Unapologetic, which puts forth the best production in the music industry and a bit more of an urban lean to create an entire album of tracks that hit hard. Whether she’s putting a gender-bending twist on Ginuwine’s “Pony” or showing off her balladeer-side on “Stay”, she’s striking all the right chords. Quality has definitely not suffered, despite Unapologetic being Rihanna’s seventh full-length studio album in as many years.
#9 True
Solange
Listen To: “Losing You”, “Lovers In The Parking Lot”
True is full of smooth R&B tunes that borrow their sound from the 80’s and early 90’s. It’s light and airy and simply refreshing to listen to in a sea of contemporary R&B retreads. Even as she’s singing about the dissolution of a relationship, the record feels joyous – and that’s not a failing at all. The EP is just an immensely pleasurable listen that’s held together at its core by Solange’s smooth, dextrous voice.
#8 Up All Night
One Direction
Listen To: “What Makes You Beautiful”, “One Thing”,
“Stole My Heart”
If this ranking were based solely off my playcounts for 2012, Up All Night would be #2 (behind, well, behind this list’s actual #1). One Direction’s debut album doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, just to bring it back. Clearly recreating the boyband sound from the late 90’s full of crisp guitars and immaculately clean production, the songs bop over the best pure pop melodies around. There’s something to be said about bubblegum pop done right.
#7 The MF Life
Melanie Fiona
Listen To: “4AM”, “Wrong Side Of A Love Song”,
“Change The Record”
The MF Life plays like an hour long journey through all the delicious cracks and crevices of Melanie Fiona’s breathtakingly gorgeous voice. She pulls back on softer moments and pushes her voice to full power to equally stirring effect. Of course, the songs themselves are fantastic, solidly R&B with bluesy, folky and pop twinges here and there. But really, come and stay for Melanie Fiona’s sweet, soulful powerhouse vocals that constantly manage to impress even as they shy away from flash and flourish.
#6 Take Me Home
One Direction
Listen To: “C’mon C’mon”, “Heart Attack”, “I Would”
Take Me Home is hardly a departure from the sound One Direction carved out in Up All Night, but with a little practice, it’s a a touch tighter and more specific. It boasts fewer generic, swoopy mid-tempos and amps up the energy on choruses that explode into even more spectacularly catchy peaks. The songs buzz with a hyperactive youthfulness that compel the listener to bounce along with the band. In terms of fun-per-square-inch, Take Me Home can’t be beat.
#5 Life Is Good
Nas
Listen To: “Daughters”, “Cherry Wine”, “Bye Baby”
As he tends to do, Nas is once again rapping about his personal hardships – most notably this time around, he candidly tackles his divorce in “Bye Baby”. Life Is Good is rap as rap was intended to be – solid beats, good flow, good lyricism. Nas sticks to what he does best and it works. It’s really as simple as that. No tricks, no frills, no excess. Just Nas, which is more than enough to make it the best hip-hop record of the year.
#4 Perfectly Imperfect
Elle Varner
Listen To: “Refill”, “Oh What A Night”, “Damn Good Friends”
All you really need to know about Perfectly Imperfect is that the lead single, “Refill”, manages to put soul stylings over an aggressively prominent bluegrass fiddle and makes it sound amazing. The rest of the album is more quietly innovative, but always fresh. Elle Varner breathes new life into a genre that feels increasingly stale, even if all she’s singing about are “straight shots of Patrón and a slice of lime.” The songs are vibrant and her personality totally inhabits every word.
#3 Thank You Camellia
Kris Allen
Listen To: “My Weakness”, “Out Alive”, “Loves Me Not”
I’d wax poetic about the catchy mainstream poppiness of the tracks on Kris Allen’s Thank You Camellia or his strong, sure vocals or the emotional sincerity of the ballads, but then I might never stop. Instead, I’ll just say that it’s one of the cleanest, most enjoyable pop-minded pop/rock albums out there and it’s criminal that a record with such mainstream sensibility hasn’t been heard by more people. If you’re not tapping your foot and singing along, you’re doing it wrong.
#2 Girl On Fire
Alicia Keys
Listen To: “When It’s All Over”, “Girl On Fire”,
“Not Even The King”
Girl On Fire is all about Alicia Keys getting personal. It’s personal in its intimate moments where Keys sings in a whisper accompanied only by her piano and it’s personal its loud moments where Keys is shouting declarations to the world over thundering drums. Her voice is powerful and oozes raw emotion. The album is full of songs that need to stew, that seep in slowly, but completely. Simply, it’s everything I’ve come to expect in a great Alicia Keys album without being anything I’ve ever heard before.
#1 Our Version Of Events
Emeli Sandé
Listen To: “Next To Me”, “River”, “Read All About It (Part III)”
In a year in which One Direction released two albums and Alicia Keys and Kris Allen released one album a piece, my favorite album came from someone I’d never even heard of before March of this year. But, well, now I have heard of Emeli Sandé and so has every person who has spent more than five minutes talking to me. Our Version Of Events is, well, perfect. It’s a little bit Alicia Keys and a little bit Adele, and all wonderful. The songs are powerful and soulful, intimate and exciting, catchy and emotional. Sandé’s voice is weighty as it reverberates through tunes entrenched in full sounds. Even after hundreds of full plays through the album, I still don’t skip a single track. If I have one complaint related to the album, it’s that not enough people are receptive to my screaming about it. (Though, slowly but surely, that’s changing.) If you haven’t heard this album, do yourself a favor and listen to the entire thing right now.
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