1 Frank Ocean
”Whoever you are, wherever you are, I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike.” Frank Ocean wrote that on his Tumblr, right before revealing that he’d once fallen for another man. Of course, his confession generated attention because it was groundbreaking — a hip-hop star of his stature had never admitted to same-sex love. But his words have also become a mantra for a new generation of R&B fans — those who believe in a bigger kind of love, not just the type that requires 1,200-thread-count sheets. Channel Orange feels like the bravest act of vulnerability in recent memory. Whether Ocean is imagining what it’s like to raise a kid with no money (”Making less than minimum wage/Still inside our parents’ homes”) or thinking about the loneliness drug addicts must feel (”Your family stopped inviting you to things/Won’t let you hold their infant”), his empathy runs so deep, it hurts. Even his visionary twist on avant electro, which draws inspiration from ”Bennie and the Jets,” Stevie Wonder, and boom-bap beats, offers a lesson for everyone from indie rockers to hip-hop diehards: We all connect to the same heartfelt music. If that’s not love, what is?
Best track: ”Thinkin’ Bout You”
2. 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
What’s it like inside Fiona Apple’s crazy-brilliant head? This thrilling mood-tornado of an album gives us a chance to find out — and it sounds amazing in there. Whether she’s banging on the piano hard enough to chase out the demons or battle-crying with all the fury of a warrior chief, Apple always cranks up the intensity to yellow-alert level. And it’s difficult not to feel the same delirious passion for her songs, which are so intimate, you’ll believe her when she swears her chest is about to burst open like an egg, splattering her heart yolk all over. It’s an apt metaphor for Apple, who has created a work of heartbreaking beauty. You’ll adore it for just as long as it takes you to read that album title: forever.
Best track: ”Anything We Want”
When was the last time indie rock wore its excitement like a badge of honor, safety-pinned to its hoodie sleeve? There’s nothing ironic or detached about this exhilarating blast of Canadian bar-punk. Not the title. Not the explosion of fireworks that opens the album. Not the roaring guitars, which get everything pounding: your heart, your fist, your beer. And certainly not the lyrics, which broadcast the band’s live-for-today, rage-till-tomorrow ethos with such conviction, it’s only a matter of time before they’re tattooed across some dude’s neck: ”Remember saying things like ‘We’ll sleep when we’re dead’/And thinking this feeling was never going to end?” As long as they play basement-club anthems this visceral, we’ll never forget.
Best track: ”The House That Heaven Built”
You want freaky? This R&B charmer can give you that and then some. Whether he’s bragging about his bedroom skills or deep-frying the Zombies’ ”Time of the Season” until it burbles psychedelic soul, he belongs to a weirdo-prophet tradition that stretches back through Maxwell, Marvin Gaye, and other belt notchers who’ve been blessed with a voice so smooth and golden, it can turn even the most explicit slow jams into high art.
Best track: ”Don’t Look Back”
5. Lord Huron
Sometimes this hazy folk-pop feels light enough to drift away like a tumbleweed. But then, that’s the allure of Benjamin Schneider’s campfire lullabies, which were crafted in Los Angeles and sound like they were baked in the desert sunsets there. The songs come on softly, with wind-chime intros and jangly acoustic guitars, and the sweetness of the melodies lingers long after they’re gone. By the end, when he sings about listening to the wind, the music feels almost spiritual, especially when the lonesome harmonies kick in. You could call it heavenly, if it didn’t sound so achingly human.
Best track: ”Time to Run”
6. Killer Mike
Just in time for an election year, OutKast’s firebrand buddy returned to raise hell, boosting his profile from Dirty South hero to Public Enemy No. 1. His album title stands for Rebellious African People, and his furious rants aren’t shy about backing up that claim, whether he’s attacking police brutality or accusing Obama of trading blood for oil. But even when he’s in conspiracy-theory mode, El-P’s sticky funk production and deliciously dizzy beats save him from his paranoia. ”If I say any more/They might be at my door!” he claims. Well, maybe. But they’re only there to party.
Best track: ”Big Beast”
7. Django Django
Some people assume that U.K. guitar bands will never learn to reinvent the classic ’60s sound, so the only British Invasion we’ll ever get on our shores will involve boy bands. Those people should play this marvelous debut right now. These Scottish art-school alums make surf rock, proto-psychedelia, and acid-trip vocals sound perfectly of-the-moment in 2012, thanks to their sci-fi synthesizers. And the postapocalyptic nightmares in their lyrics are guaranteed fresh until 2045.
Best track: ”Default”
8. Kendrick Lamar
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
With his mythic backstory, this year’s best young rapper was destined for greatness. He was born in 1987 in Compton, around the same time that gangsta rap took hold of the city. More than two decades later, Dr. Dre gave him a record deal, and he’s putting his hometown back on the map. good kid tracks Lamar’s coming-of-age with a highly cinematic eye, steeping his storytelling in the West Coast anthems that shaped him, vividly remembering what it was like to grow up in the projects with the same problems Dre addressed: gang violence, poverty, drugs, being torn between easy pleasures and the higher power of church. ”Halle Berry, or hallelujah?” he asks. But for a kid this gifted, hip-hop is the only religion.
Best track: ”Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”
9. Chiddy Bang
When the Philly whiz-kid rap duo recorded their major-label debut, Keith Richards heard them through the studio wall and dropped by to share a joint. Still, it might be unfair to say that Chiddy Bang made one of the best records of the year. It’s actually a dozen of the best records of the year: The first three tracks alone feature samples from criminally overlooked singles by Kate Nash, Walk the Moon, and Icona Pop. Add some whip-smart internal rhymes by Chidera ”Chiddy” Anamege — who recently held the Guinness World Record for the longest freestyle rap and here delivers riffs about Ray Charles, Charles Barkley, and unprotected sex he calls ”baby roulette” — and Breakfast is a genuine breakthrough.
Best track: ”Handclaps & Guitars”
”Tonight, we are young,” sings Nate Ruess on the band’s pop smash. ”So let’s set the world on fire.” And that’s basically what he did this year, pointing a flamethrower of Broadway show-tune theatricality and glam-rock opulence at Band Geek America and discovering that the kids really, really like it. So many of the New York trio’s experiments work spectacularly when they shouldn’t: Ruess can make Auto-Tune sound sincere, or turn a could’ve-been-lame joke about missing his mom into a moving confession, or get laughs by calling a Ray-Ban-loving hipster ”some sunglasses,” or even somehow trace emo’s roots back to Queen. Which figures: Freddie Mercury would’ve loved an album that’s this full of life and hope and spazzy magic. Who wouldn’t?
Best track: ”Some Nights”
Best Son of Mumford (American Idol Edition): Phillip Phillips, ”Home”
Best Son of Mumford (Icelandic Edition): Of Monsters and Men, ”Little Talks”
Coolest DIY Project:Beck’s sheet-music-only Song Reader, meant to be interpreted and performed by fans
Smells Like Team Spirit Prize: Paul McCartney reunites surviving Nirvana members for Sandy benefit.
Most Canadian Couple: Avril Lavigne and Chad Kroeger
Most Exhausting Couple:Rihanna and Chris Brown
Most Awesomely Bizarre Music Video: Grimes’ ”Genesis”
Most Awesomely Basic Music Video: Jessie Ware’s ”Wildest Moments”
Luckiest Baby in America: Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s daughter, Blue Ivy, born in January
Luckiest Baby in England:Adele’s son (name still unreleased), born in October