A common refrain among rock critics goes something like this: There is no longer a common experience in pop music, a band or artist that galvanizes everyone into a long, unified applause. Sure, that can make you feel wistful for the days when everyone was buying the same great album, but this strange, disjointed era just means we get a wider range of great music. Diverse lists are good news: The music industry might still be trying to figure out what it can afford to be these days, but the musicians working within it are rising to the occasion.
None of these artists sold Adele-level numbers, but each one deserved that level of compensation.
1.Frank Ocean “Channel Orange” (Def Jam) — Before it even hit the racks and the download sites in July, “Channel Orange” was a politically important album, but Odd Future vocalist Frank Ocean's songs about sheltered life in the sun and conflicted romance set a high standard for modern soul music even outside the context of Ocean's life. The singer's announcement of his bisexuality grabbed headlines and started a new discussion about the need for social evolution in hip-hop and R&B, but it was the genius of “Super Rich Kids,” “Sweet Life,” “Bad Religion” and “Pyramids” that will make “Channel Orange” endure beyond the year it helped define.
2.Tame Impala “Lonerism” (Modular) — Tame Impala's Kevin Parker led the Australian group beyond the muscular, fuzz-toned psychedelia of 2010's “Innerspeaker” and into startlingly melodic new territory on “Lonerism.” Producer Dave Fridmann helps build Parker's “Apocalypse Dreams” and “Mind Mischief” into top-shelf Beatlesque majesties — if the band continues to evolve at this rate, they could be historic.
3.Kendrick Lamar “Good Kid, “M.A.A.D. City” (Aftermath) — After re-energizing West Coast hip-hop with last year's indie hit “Section 80,” Lamar signed with the mother ship, Dr. Dre's Aftermath, and became a standard-bearer in a genre that direly needed one. A collection of searing autobiographical stories and indelible hooks, the album plays like graduate-level gangsta rap, hard-edged but with abundant insight into what makes a good kid “M.A.A.D.”
4.Beach House “Bloom” (Sub Pop) — Big, blissed out “Bloom” takes the gauzy aesthetics that were largely abandoned at the end of the Cocteau Twins' career and jolts them back to life. Fortunately, Victoria LeGrand and Alex Scally are not just trading in atmospherics — “Wild” and “Wishes” would be just as enthralling if they were played on a Casio keyboard.
5.Tig Notaro “Live” (self-released) — After the sudden death of her mother, an abdominal infection and the end of a long-term relationship, comedian Tig Notaro was diagnosed with breast cancer in July. In the face of a truly calamitous year, Louis C.K. encouraged her to go onstage at Largo in Los Angeles in August 2012 and do what she does best, but Notaro quickly found she could not go forward with her prepared material. The result is a landmark comedy album in which an audience does not know how to respond at first to a largely improvised set based on tragedy. The uncomfortable laughter soon turns into a real, honest reflection of a skilled comic being real and honest.
6.Field Music “Plumb” (Memphis Industries) — Brothers Peter and David Brewis created a song cycle about a single day in the life of a British working stiff that lives and breathes in the common area of the Venn diagram between Paul McCartney, XTC and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. At about 39 minutes, “Plumb” is a compact wonder, and by the time the Brewises wrap things up with the angular anthem “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing,” they prove that prog-rock is alive, well and can be deployed successfully in three-minute bursts.
7.Chairlift “Something” (Columbia) — For their major-label debut, Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberley's pastel pop became more slick and accomplished, and they wear it so well on “Wrong Opinion,” and “Amanaemonesia” that these songs could pass for honest-to-goodness new wave classics. Chairlift's best song on “Something,” “I Belong In Your Arms,” deserved to be a runaway hit in 2012. For bonus points, they recorded the best Japanese-language version of an American alt-rock song since the Flaming Lips' nihongo version of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.”
8.Jessie Ware “Devotion” (Island) — A former backup singer, British chanteuse Jessie Ware debuted with an uncommonly elegant collection of R&B ballads that surrounded her clear, emotional voice with the kind of spacious production usually reserved for Sade or Bryan Ferry, but with enough nods to A-list dubstep to feel entirely modern.
9.Blur “Parklive” (EMI/Parlophone) — This is the sound of about 100,000 people renewing their love affair with one of Britain's most beloved bands. Recorded in London's Hyde Park at the close of 2012's Summer Olympics, “Parklive” is one of those uncommon live albums that capture both the enthusiasm of the crowd and a reunited band sounding like it deserves every cheer.
10.Japandroids “Celebration Rock” (Polyvinyl) — Two guys from Vancouver make the sound of at least five on this loud, bashing slab of dazed and confused rock. Exuberant blasts of hormones and adrenaline like “The Nights of Wine and Roses” and “Younger Us” sound like the best night of high school, the one everyone wants to have.