Best of 2012 Pop Music: Albums

Albums from the Japandroids, Frank Ocean and Kelly Hogan are among the favorites of Times writer Todd Martens.
Albums from the Japandroids, Frank Ocean and Kelly Hogan are among the favorites of Times writer Todd Martens.
(Polyvinyl / Def Jam / Anti-)

What follows are the favorite 10 albums of 2012 as chosen by Times pop music staffer Todd Martens:

1. Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange” (Def Jam). No doubt this is Ocean’s moment, what with his Grammy nominations and the romantic topicality of the his songs, but “Channel Orange” felt like an awakening for popular R&B as well. Fragile ideas, scattered electronics and understated orchestrations surround one of the most tender yet bold new voices in pop.

2. Kelly Hogan, “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain” (Anti-). Working with an all-star cast of songwriters, Hogan dips into country, soul and pop, and does it all with gracefulness. Yet whether the songwriter is M. Ward, Jon Langford or Robyn Hitchcock, the star is always Hogan’s voice, a casual, inviting instrument that’s equally at home amid the recession blues of “We Can’t Have Nice Things” and the bar-band fun of “Haunted.”

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3. El-P, “Cancer for Cure” (Fat Possum). Throughout the head trip of an album that is “Cancer 4 Cure,” surveillance drones buzz Brooklyn, handwritten notes are left on fallen soldiers and messages of serenity are pierced with choppy beats that morph into gunfire. Is this a current-events record or a snapshot of one’s paranoia?

4. Passion Pit, “Gossamer” (Columbia). Michael Angelakos’ records don’t always sound human. The track-upon-track production mixes keyboards, guitars and orchestral instruments until it’s sometimes little more than a bundle of luminous accouterments. Yet below the ultra-modern glisten are little diaries of tough times and hard living, all of them graced with emotive, soul falsettos that at times turn this into an unassuming R&B record.

5. Japandroids, “Celebration Rock” (Polyvinyl). A rock ‘n’ roll celebration of life that’s over before listeners even know what hit them. Guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse attack these songs with relentless idealism, even going so far to sing as wildness as a treasure. But before the feedback fades, they’re wondering where those days have gone.

6. Cat Power, “Sun” (Matador). This is blues that wants to dance with its demons rather than wallow in them. Each one of these 11 tracks feels lie a call to action, be it the groovy “3,6,9" or the modernist “Manhattan.” As the Latin-inflected “Ruin” makes clear, Marshall may not like what she sees, but there’s fun to be had with doom and gloom.

7. Dr. John, “Locked Down” (Nonesuch). There’s plenty of trippiness to be had in the New Orleans funk of Dr. John, but working with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach gets Mac Rebennack to rattle some forgotten bones. The keyboard here is akin to something magical -- a force for dark mysticism.

8. The Coup, “Sorry to Bother You” (Anti-). Opening number “The Magic Clap” acts as a three-minute overture for the album, roping in elements of brassy, psychedelic keyboards, badgering garage-rock guitars and a funky, foot-stomping beat that’s militant in its precision. The times will be tough, but no rebellion will go down without plenty of dancing in the streets.

9. Sharon Van Etten, “Tramp” (Jagjaguwar). The drama in Van Etten’s songs isn’t that of a love gone crazy or a love gone mad. She’s after something far more difficult to pinpoint, as these songs are an examination of one’s solitary, sometimes self-sabotaging thoughts. The melodies are there, but tension is what’s emphasized.

10. Lupe Fiasco, “Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1” (Atlantic). Many made a joke of the conspiracy theories Lupe rattles off in interviews, yet his songs are overflowing with ideas and questions -- all of them aimed at cultural and political leaders. He’s not presenting answers, but simply raising the doubts that too few opt to explore.


Explore the picks of other Times critics and contributors here.


Times music staff best of 2012 list

2012 in review: Pop music’s most memorable moments


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