If the very notion of best albums seems dated in 2012, the actual albums on my best-of-2012 list make a case for the vitality of longform recorded music. Of the titles on this list, I own physical CDs of only two: Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas, which I have because the record company sent me a copy, in keeping with an old idea for promoting an old method of music delivery; and the set of Jazz Workshop Concerts by Charles Mingus, which has been released only as a box of six CDs. (I bought them myself.) I have experienced the rest only as batches of downloaded MP3s. Yet each of these ten titles hangs together as album, as a collection of pieces unified in an interesting way—if not by theme, then by texture or atmosphere, or by force of its maker’s personality. These are my ten favorite titles of 2012, the albums I have liked best and admired most this year.
1. Grimes, Visions. An odd and bravely funny album of ambitious, tuneful, and danceable art-pop songs by a smart singer experimenting with GarageBand in her apartment. The dream of a million home-recording artists almost perfectly fulfilled.
2. Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas. Quiet, rueful songs of reflection and late-life fantasy by the great gray lion of literary pop. The thinking here is not age-worn; the theme is age and its illusions, which, Cohen shows us, are as alluring and dangerous as those of youth. Not to knock this exquisite album, but Cohen, after living with the material on the road this year, has been doing some of these songs even better on stage.
3. Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio. Rangey and volatile, the music on this unclassifiable album by Glasper, a gifted producer and pianist, draws freely from a dozen modes in the history of African-American musical expression. Featuring Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def).
4. Andy Stott, Luxury Problems. Earbud electronica that’s not merely an aural narcotic, from a serious dub techno producer out of Manchester. With wafting, purling vocal elements derived from performances by Stott’s former piano teacher, Alison Skidmore.
5. Dave Douglas, Be StillUnderstated readings of spirituals by one of our most adventurous composers and trumpeters, recorded in honor of his late mother.
6. Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-’65. A six-CD set of probing, groping, sometimes failing but always interesting concert performances by Mingus in his experimental prime. With Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Charles McPherson, Clifford Jordan, and others. Most of this music has never before been available, except as bootlegs.
7. Human Hearts, Another. What would Lorenz Hart or Yip Harburg do if they lived in 2012? If they applied the craft of Tin Pan Alley tunesmithing to the mess of contemporary life, they might produce songs as fine and resonant as the ones on this under-appreciated album by the songwriter Franklin Bruno, recording here under the faux band name of Human Hearts.
8. Pink,The Truth About Love. Only the rhythms are upbeat on this album of clashing messages. Dance! says the music. Run away! say the words. I can think of no contemporary pop music as intelligently and infectiously conflicted as these songs by the never-rosy Pink.
9. Tame Impala, Lonerism. Dreamy, melodic psychedelia by a terrific newish band from Australia.
10. Frank Kimbrough Trio, Live at Kitano. A superb pianist usually associated with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Kimbrough escapes Schneider’s sizable shadow with this set recorded in the Kitano jazz club in New York.
Honorable Mentions: If this list had more than ten titles, the next few would be Accelerando by the Vijay Iyer Trio, Channel Orange by Frank Ocean, Ligiti/Beethoven by Jeremy Denk, The Creep by Ted Nash, and Warrior by Ke$ha. Yes, Ke$ha. After all, if one cannot turn to mainstream pop for regressive sleaze, where can one turn?