1 Frank Ocean
Even as a youngblood in the biz, Ocean refused to edit down “Pyramids”—the 10-minute epic that serves as the centerpiece of this instant neo-soul classic-for radio play. That’s just one reason why he was my musical hero in 2012. Whether he’s riffing on Mary J. Blige and Elton John in the same song, hanging with André 3000 and John Mayer or crooning about Forrest Gump, the way his debut channel-flips you is about as addictive as the “Crack Rock” he sings about on one dope cut.
2 Bonnie Raitt
From the Black Keys and Dr. John to Jack White and Gary Clark Jr., it was a good year to feel the blues. But none of those fellas killed it like Raitt. On her first set since ’05, she brings grace and grit to tunes like “Not Cause I Wanted To,” a worthy match for “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
3 Kendrick Lamar
good kid, m.A.A.d city
What Frank Ocean represented for the future of R&B, this Dr. Dre protege represented for the future of rap: a bold, out-of-the-box-thinking leap forward. His major-label debut takes you on a bumping-and bumpy-ride around the streets of Compton, the Cali city where he grew up. With cinematic vision, he vividly depicts his struggle, emerging a triumphant survivor.
4 Mumford & Sons
They must have known their calling with all those religious references on Babel, because Mumford & Sons were the great rock saviors in 2012. That they’d ascend to that glorified place while playing banjo, mandolin and upright bass is no small miracle. With the transcendence of their second set, surely arenas await in 2013.
Usher, Chris Brown and Trey Songz didn’t come up with many new twists for the bedroom, but this R&B star provided a soundtrack to outdo the Kama Sutra. Yet this eyes-roll-back seduction is also swirling with old-school social consciousness (“Candles in the Sun”) and old-fashioned romance (“Adorn”).
The Light the Dead See
Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan has always been great at finding beauty in the dark places. But he is a real revelation teaming up with the English production duo Soulsavers for this gorgeousness, where goth meets gospel and blues. It almost makes me sad that he’s getting back together with Depeche.
7 Alicia Keys
Girl on Fire
When an artist has been doing it-and doing it with consummate musicianship-for as long as Keys has now, it’s sometimes easy to start taking them for granted. Her latest shows that, even though she’s a wife and mom now, her creative flame still torches the competition.
8 Adam Lambert
It’s fitting that Lambert just hosted the VH1 Divas salute to dance music. After all, this divo made the best dance-pop disc of 2012-equal parts Freddie Mercury, George Michael and Lady Gaga. Trespassing-which made him the first openly gay artist to debut an album at No. 1-also happens to make him the first American Idol alum to ever make my year-end Top 10.
9 The Music of Nashville
It wasn’t the best year for country albums. Music City could learn from TV’s Nashville: Executive music producer T Bone Burnett keeps it authentic with so many crafty original tunes and credible singers that a song like “Fade Into You”-one of those achingly good Scarlett-Gunnar duets-didn’t even make the cut for the show’s new soundtrack.
The Truth About Love
Like Alicia Keys, Pink broke out in the early 2000s and is still rocking a decade later in her 30s as a family woman. In fact, this may be her most fully realized work, revealing all those ugly and uncomfortable truths in a way that’s at turns brave, beautiful and just plain badass.