There was a veritable drought when it came to good pop albums in 2012. Every time I thought something was going to be amazing, I ended up largely disappointed. As such I've cut my usual top 100 albums down to 40. I could have stretched it to 50 but those last few albums all had major flaws or were simply uneven to the point that I'd be embarrassed recommending them to people. That's not to say, I'm proud of some of these choices. I know I'm going to get dragged for a couple of choices but I like them so you can get fucked. The top 20 in particular are beyond repute and belong in any pop fan's collection.
Here are my 40 favourite albums of 2012:
40. Lotus - Christina Aguilera
Don't judge me. I'm well aware that I'm one of the few people on planet earth that found exactly what they were looking for in Lotus. Say what you like about Christina but she can sing and the hottest mess in the game decided to show off those powerful pipes to dizzying effect on a frankly bizarre collection of songs aimed at putting her haters in check or raising her obviously battered self-esteem. I can picture her sitting in front of a mirror, applying her make-up with a trowel, humming "Sing For Me" or "Empty Words" - which is what ultimately makes Lotus personal and real.
39. Tramp - Sharon Van Etten
I bought this CD on Laura Imbruglia's recommendation and almost jumped on Twitter to demand my $20 from that sexy diva after hearing it for the first time. Sharon's opus of misery and defeat is a bleak listen. This bitch has shit going on and she serves it up for the world to dissect. And I love that and felt a little less disconnected from the human race every time I played it.
38. Heal - Loreen
Now this is a grower. If you buy this expecting an album full of upbeat floorfillers like the Swede's Eurovision-winning anthem "Euphoria", you're going to be extremely disappointed. Heal has a typically understated, Scandinavian pop sensibility that could put off a lot of people. It takes a couple of listens for the melodies and hooks to stand out but it's worth it. Loreen is just interesting enough to escape the Eurovision curse if she keeps this up.
37. The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends - The Flaming Lips
I'm not even going to lie. I only bought this because Ke$ha was on the cover but then I played it couple of times and was hooked. The dude who basically is The Flaming Lips invited a bunch of friends to collaborate and the results are more hit than miss. Apart from Lady Dolla's stunning contribution, other highlights include the Nick Cave and Neon Indian collabs. A wild ride best enjoyed on good drugs.
36. 1991 - Azealia Banks
It's a bit cheeky including a four-track EP on this list but what a quartet of songs! "1991", "Van Vogue", "212" and "Liquorice" are the best hybrid rap/dance/pop jams of 2012. Azealia shows Nicki Minaj up as the embarrassing clown she is on this flawless EP. Imagine what she could do with a full album.
35. Think Bigger - Cosmo Jarvis
My old friend Cosmo dropped his most commercial album yet in 2012. Gone is the white-man rapping and weird metal interludes, leaving an imperfectly polished batch of indie-pop/rock songs that should be setting radio on fire but are just a tad too lyrically intense for mainstream success. If you need something meaty and challenging - yet still catchy and funny - to blast in the car, this is your CD.
34. The Spirit Indestructible - Nelly Furtado
Objectively this has to be the biggest flop of all time. How can you go from selling 10 million copies of Loose to shipping 30,000 worldwide of the follow-up? It just doesn't seem possible. What happened to her fucking fans? It's not like the album is awful either. Commercially ill-advised? Yes. Terrible? Not in the slightest.
If you look past the career-killing yet completely amazing lead single "Big Hoops", you're left with a fairly typical Nelly Furtado album with pretty lyrics, world music influences and interesting - if occasionally dated - production. There's not a hit to be heard but The Spirit Indestructible is very good from beginning to end. Which is a rare boast to make in 2012.
I hope she finds a road back to relevance. Can I suggest a judging stint on The Voice or X Factor?
33. Bloom - Beach House
I spent a lot of 2012 blazed and this was my favourite soundtrack for those warm and fuzzy moments. If you haven't discovered Beach House's atmospheric brand of dream-pop, you're in for a treat. Think of this American duo as the new Air.
32. Listen Up! - Haley Reinhart
For every Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, there are dozens of talent show alumni that fade into obscurity faster than MDNA fell off the charts. I hope that fate doesn't await Haley Reinhard. The American Idol third place-getter really brings something different to the table with her quirky torch songs. Occasionally, she veers into Billy Joel territory (which is actually not such a bad thing) but when Haley gets it right - like she does on lead single "Free" - you can't help but think there's a niche out there waiting for her.
31. Boys Don't Cry - Rumer
Fuck I love Rumer and her Karen Carpenter-esque albums of covers. On Boys Don't Cry she tackles a bunch of largely obscure songs first recorded by men. This has been done before but never with such authenticity. Instead of updating or changing the tracks, Rumer stays true to the material - resulting in an album that could have been recorded in the '70s. It's slow and slightly depressing at times but I can't think of a better soundtrack for long, sleepless nights.
30. Good Kid, m.A.A.d City - Kendrick Lamar
Look at me! I'm so cool having Kendrick Lamar on my list! That's the impression that I get from a lot of blogs, who are falling over themselves to crown Kendrick the new Kanye West. I'm not that sold. Sure, he's talented but so are A$AP Rocky and J.Cole. Time will tell who comes out on top but this is one hell of a debut. The kind of record that feels raw and real and not recorded with the intention of impressing critics - which is probably what sparked the circle-jerk in the first place. When is "Swimming Pools" going to make its way to Australia? Such a perfect summer song.
29. Devotion - Jessie Ware
Jessie Ware was the keeper of the classy UK-pop flame in 2012. Her velvety vocals drew comparisons to Sade and her complex and meaningful lyrics made Devotion a rare highlight in a year defined by emotionally-barren pop offerings. "Wildest Moments" remains my favourite but there isn't a bad song on this triumphant debut. I can't wait to see her in a couple of weeks - at The Beresford no less!
28. Is Your Love Big Enough?- Lianne La Havas
In the past this record might have been described as dinner party music but seeing as I haven't been to one since the '90s - do people still do that shit? - I guess I'll just have to call Lianne's critically acclaimed debut a beautifully-produced soul/folk fusion that sounds really good in the background while doing other stuff. I know that sounds like a diss but this album instantly raises the tone of any gathering and makes me a feel a little bit fancy. Which is reason enough to buy it. No?
27. Fortune - Chris Brown
Fuck off. If I hear one more cunt get on their soapbox about what Breezy did to Rihanna, I'll tie you to a chair and force you to listen to Fortune on repeat until you come to your senses. She's currently riding his dick - so why are you still pressed? Getting back to the music for a second, I have no complaints about this collection of soulful mid-tempo jams and rejects from MDNA. Was Madonna high giving all the good shit away? Chris is the face and sound of modern urban-pop. Get on board or shut up.
26. The Haunted Man - Bat For Lashes
I love this miserable bitch so much. Her exquisitely-penned songs of love and loss make me want to kill myself but the odd suicidal thought is a small price to pay for this kind of quality. The Haunted Man is one of those rare albums that unfold and grow richer with every listen. In a perfect world, Bat For Lashes would be bigger than Florence + The Machine. She's vastly more talented.
25. The Warmest Place - Catcall
My friend Catcall released the best Australian album of 2012 and nobody gave a shit. I know that sounds harsh but such is life for an independent pop artist in this country. I kept thinking one of her Empire Of The Sun meets Marina & The Diamonds magic would click with radio but as yet no luck. It's your loss. The Warmest Place isn't perfect. There is some weird shit on here that I skip but the good stuff is really, really great. Download "Satellites" and "The World Is Ours" for a taste of this criminally-underrated opus.
24. Birdy - Birdy
I know this has been out forever in Europe but Australia went Birdy mad in 2012 due to some clever cross promotion with a couple of TV shows. It all feels a bit forced but who really cares when the music is this good? A collection of eerily pretty covers beautifully performed by one of best voices in the world was always going to be a home run. For what it's worth, my faves are "Terrible Love" and "People Help The People". Not that there's a bad song here.
23. Paradise - Lana Del Rey
I wasn't sure what to do with the Paradise EP. Count it as part the Born To Die deluxe? Maybe but in my mind they are two completely different albums. Different producers worked on them and they are completely diverse in tone and texture. Obviously, I prefer Born To Die but this is a gorgeous taste of what's to come for Lana. "Ride" is utterly perfect. "Cola" makes me feel dirty. "Bel Air" creates a world of decayed glamour. What more do you want from what is essentially a bonus disc?
22. Somethin' About Kreay - Kreayshawn
Take a seat, haters. I don't care what you think of Kreayshawn. She's clearly not on the same level as Azealia Banks as a rapper but she's funny and smart and works with some of the hottest producers in the game on her floptastic debut, which turns out to be one of the year's biggest surprises by being uniformly excellent.
I don't know what the future holds for Kreay - the hype dissipated as fast as it came - but she's going to ride the wave as long as it lasts and I'll be listening. Check out the best Lady Gaga song not recorded by that old cunt ("Luv Haus") and the flawless ode to psycho bitches everywhere, "Left Ey3". And yes, it's a dedication to Lisa Lopez. Could your fave?
21. Nights Like These - Outasight
I get so much shit for my Outasight appreciation. Yes, he could well be the worst rapper on the planet. But thankfully he's aware of that - so the vast majority of tracks on Night Like These are half-spoken/half-sung electro-pop jams in the vein of Ke$ha but not quite as good. Having said all that surprise Australian top 10 hit "Now Or Never" is one of the best songs of 2012 and tracks like "Nights Like These" and "If I Fall Down" are without flaw. I'm here for more.
20. Visions - Grimes
The Queen of Canadian electro-weirdness won over an army of new fans with Visions. Sure, the music occasionally veers towards the intentionally obtuse but when she's trying less hard to prove her edginess - start with singles "Genesis" and "Oblivion" - she makes blissfully experimental pop. And I'm slowly coming around to her voice despite the fact that she sounds like whales mating.I'm so excited to hear what she does next.
19. Icona Pop - Icona Pop
These Scandipop goddess made quite a mark on Australia this year with that awful Chiddy Bang re-imagining of their glorious breakthrough hit "Manners" and the official soundtrack of Summer "I Love It". Happily, the rest of their debut album turned out to be equally brilliant upbeat pop. "We Got The World", "Lovers To Friends" and "Nights Like This" all stand out as future singles. Think of this duo as the second coming of Shampoo. Yes, they are that amazing!
18. Ora - Rita Ora
"Oh look, it's Rihanna 2.0!" That was the common reaction to Rita everywhere except the UK where she actually kind of happened. Other common criticisms were that she's boring and doesn't have her own sound yet. To be honest, there's an element of truth to all of those accusations but people forget that it took Rihanna three albums to get a personality and lessors like Ciara and Cassie are still on the search for a clue a decade into their respective careers.
What Rita lacks in charisma, she makes up for in expertly crafted urban-pop tunes that would have been huge hits for the likes of Beyoncé or even a washed-up flop like Kelly Rowland. I prefer her in dance-pop mode, so I highly recommend downloading "Shine Ya Light", the Sia-penned "Radioactive" and the best Rihanna song never released "Roc The Life". But in all honesty, I like every track on this record including generic trash like "R.I.P." and "How We Do".
17. Human Again - Ingrid Michaelson
I interviewed Ingrid a couple of months ago and still haven't got around to transcribing it. I'm such an epic fail! We had a great chat and talked about Human Again at length - particularly about how it stretched her both vocally and emotionally, dealing with break-ups, dysfunctional relationships and other generally miserable topics. But, as Ingrid explained to me, at its core the album is about renewal and rebirth and our ability to dust ourselves off and try again. Which makes it the year's most morbidly optimistic offering. I love every song.
16. Brava! Reloaded - Paulina Rubio
What a terrible year for pop trash. All my usual faves were either missing in action or cleaned up their act. Bless Paulina Rubio then for releasing this tragic RedOne-produced EP of English-language club bangers. Most of the tracks sound like Kat DeLuna B-sides (ie. completely amazing) but when she gets it right - like on the immaculate "Boys Will Be Boys" - this is absolutely essential pop. Now we just a need whole album of this shit. Put that on your to-do list, Pau!
15. Stardust - Lena
I didn't see this one coming. I didn't even like Lena's Eurovision-winning single "Satellite" and her first two albums didn't even register on my pop radar. But then I heard the title track and was blown away by how far the German diva has come. That song - and the majority of this excellent album - plays like Lisa Mitchell with a distinct pop sensibility. It's quirky, intelligent and catchy without being cheesy or obvious. 2012's biggest surprise. For me at least.
14. Girl On Fire - Alicia Keys
It feels wrong to describe something as a major disappointment and then call it one of the best albums of the year but that's exactly how I feel about Girl On Fire. As one of the few people that genuinely love The Element Of Freedom and consider it a career highlight, I can't help but feel let down by Alicia's very obvious retreat into her soul safety zone.
The splashes of pop and even folk are sorely missed on Girl On Fire, which - as expected - is uniformly excellent vocally and accomplished lyrically but a little too consistent. There are no peaks or valleys. Just a bunch of songs that all sound like third or fourth singles - if that makes any sense. My favourites are the title track and "Not Even The King". Maybe I need to hear it live to appreciate the full effect.
13. Looking 4 Myself - Usher
And the award for the year's ultimate grower goes to Usher. I've never been a huge fan of Justin Bieber's mentor but over the years he has churned out his fair share of urban-pop classics. He appeared to be in rare form with the career-best brilliance of "Climax" - surely one of 2012's best songs - but then he released the ultra-generic "Scream" and I lost all interest until some of the album tracks popped up on my iPod shuffle and I realised I desperately needed to revisit Looking 4 Myself. "Numb" is everything "Scream" wanted but failed to be and tracks like "I Care For U" and "Sins Of My Father" show how mature Usher has become as an artist. This album has completely changed my opinion of someone I thought was a spent force.
12. Hello My Name Is - Bridgit Mendler
I love American teen pop. Iconic entertainers like Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez are my favourite Disney divas but Bridgit Mendler added her name to that list with Hello My Name Is. While not as high profile as any of those artistic geniuses, Bridgit has a better voice and arguably a better A&R team. There isn't a bad song on her debut, which has already produced one crossover hit with "Ready Or Not". I can't see anything else following that gem up the charts but it's a good starting place for a very promising career. Listen to the amazing "Rocks At My Window" and "All I See Is Gold" for further proof of her pop genius.
11. Kaleidoscope Dreams - Miguel
I'm pretty sure I was the only gay man in Australia driving around the suburbs with "Pussy Is Mine" blasting from the car stereo but Miguel's awe-inspiring Kaleidoscope Dreams was a constant companion of mine in 2012. Bruno Mars is universally considered the new King of retro-tinged R&B but this is vastly superior to Unorthodox Jukebox. Tracks like "Adorn" and "Use Me" would make D'Angelo jealous, while the abundance of sleazy sex jams is reminiscent of early Prince. Stellar from beginning to end.
10. Our Version Of Events - Emeli Sandé
I think Emeli is an amazing talent - a brilliant songwriter with a beautiful voice but she's lacking the certain something that separates the very good from the great. Maybe she just needs time to evolve out of her middle of the road safety zone. Because her debut is breathtakingly good in places but just gets bogged down in lovely ballads that your mother will really like but make her sound a decade older than she is. The highlights for me are the moody "Daddy", Gospel-tinged "Next To Me" and heartbreakingly simple "Clown". The rest is just a bit too polite for my liking.
9. True - Solange Knowles
If you needed proof that the magnificent Sol-Angel & The Hadley Street Dreams wasn't a fluke, go no further than this beautifully understated EP. Solange will always live in Beyoncé's shadow but she's using the space and relative anonymity to reinvent herself as the hipster Knowles. There were moments on the aforementioned album when I thought the transition was a little forced but True is such an accomplished work that any doubt I had is long gone.
The languid electro-Dear John letter otherwise known as "Losing You" has featured on every best of 2012 list that matters and while there's nothing else that quite matches the punch of that gem but the minimalist R&B meets 80s synthpop of "Lovers In The Parking Lot" and "Don't Let Me Down" stands up to anything produced by male contemporaries like Frank Ocean and Miguel. Solange deserves to be judged on her merits. She's so much more than the urban Dannii Minogue.
8. Red - Taylor Swift
I'm a little bit torn with this album. On the one hand, I take my hat off to Taylor for being one of the canniest bitches in the history of the game. Refreshing her sound - with a little help from super producers like Max Martin and Jeff Bhasker - was inspired. She did just enough to widen her appeal without putting off the bookish girls with purity rings that bought and loved her early albums. She also broadened her Disney princess horizons to write about wider themes than the last guy that dumped her.
All of that is to be applauded but I can't help but compare Red to Speak Now, which is a much better listen. I'm not sure where Red falls down because it's good from beginning to end. I love the title track, keep returning to low key gems like "Begin Again" and "I Almost Do" and have added standouts like "Stay Stay Stay" and "Holy Ground" to numerous playlists. But for all the very good material nothing grabs me emotionally the way that "Ours", "Mean" or even "Superman" did.
Red is a great pop album but its emotional core is empty or maybe just a bit tired trying to be too many things to too many different people.
7. ...Little Broken Hearts - Norah Jones
Colour me surprised. I've never had time for Norah, who I actually forgot existed before being completely blown away by the breezy pop brilliance of "Happy Pills". I thought that song might just be an exception to the rule that states that this bitch is a cure for insomnia but the whole Danger Mouse-produced album turned out to be a dark and mysterious delight. Norah has always had a gorgeous voice but everything else about her music has been so middle of the road. I don't know if someone really fucked her over last year but ...Little Broken Hearts is shockingly angry, bitter and raw. Make sure you check out "Miriam" - surely the best revenge/murder anthem since "Where The Wild Roses Grow".
6. Push And Shove - No Doubt
Would you describe this as a flop? Or is their comeback still in full swing? Ever since the amazing "Looking Hot" video was pulled for offending native Americans, I feel like Gwen and the boys have fallen off the face of the earth. I hope they're in a room somewhere planning something huge for 2013 because Push And Shove is a fantastic ska-pop album despite being rather thin on hits. Songs like "Easy", "Dreaming The Same Dream" and "One More Summer" would have been massive in the late '90s but they are just too out of step with commercial radio now to do much damage. That doesn't mean they're bad. Listening to this album makes me feel 14 again. Which is one of the biggest compliments I can think of.
5. Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
I was a party recently where this queen announced "none of us would like that Frank Ocean album if he wasn't gay" like he just discovered the theory of relativity or something. Of course, I couldn't help but read that bitch like a Jackie Collins novel on an international flight but he has a point. Channel Orange wouldn't have made the same splash without Frank's unexpected pre-launch coming out statement. It was a shock to everyone given the lyrical content of his early songs but sucking cock hasn't helped Adam Lambert on the charts or with critics.
Frank, on the other hand, has a big hit on his hands with "Thinkin' About You" and a swag of Grammy nominations. People don't seem to give a shit about his sexuality, which is why he's so important and actually represents progress. The gay-themed songs ("Pilot Jones" and "Bad Religion") are highlights for the simple fact that I can relate to them on an emotional level but the rest of the album is equally rich in rich and experimental R&B.
Did anyone else go close to touching the weird and wonderful "Pyramids" in 2012? No. Now take a seat and stop tearing someone down because you've got nothing better to do.
4. Blown Away - Carrie Underwood
Taylor gets all the attention but Carrie continues to chalk up the crossover country hits and sell millions without riding every dick in town. The Blown Away era got off to a rocky start with the not quite convincing country-pop anthem "Good Girl" but the title track steered the ship back on course - helping the album go platinum - and now "Two Black Cadillacs" is blowing up on US radio and iTunes. It's a just reward for a diva trying to stretch her horizons by tackling new and challenging content.
More often than not Carrie pulls it off - as on the aforementioned second and third singles - and even when she doesn't (the reggae-tastic mess of "One Way Ticket") the results are still fun and engaging. I'm hoping "Do You Think About Me" or "Good In Goodbye" might get a push in Australia. Carrie's country-tinged pop ballads could just work with the right push. The quality is there, she just needs the promotion. I'll keep dreaming.
3. Kiss - Carly Rae Jepsen
Given the all-conquering chart success of "Call Me Maybe", I expected Kiss to do a lot better than it has. In fact, I'm starting to wonder if Carly is going to be a two song wonder given the floppage of third single "This Kiss". If that's the case, I'll be in mourning because the Canadian diva was the perfect anecdote to Rihanna and all the other hoes that sing about their pussies and fucking anything that moves.
Kiss is the closest anyone has come to recreating a SAW-era Kylie album. It's a bright, shiny pop explosion with no challenging material and an almost asexual approach to romance. Carly sings about steamy topics like holding hands and dancing close to men that she doesn't know (!) the same way Lana casually mentions that her vagina tastes like Cherry Cola.
Some people are turned off by the fact that an almost 30-year-old woman is singing songs appropriate for a 12-year-old but I'm down with non-whore approach. Highlights include the ridiculously cute "Tiny Little Bows", adorable "Sweetie" and downright ridiculous yet utterly amazing "Guitar String/Wedding Ring". I hope Carly finds her niche because I desperate need more of this shit.
1. Warrior - Ke$ha
1. Born To Die - Lana Del Rey
I really tried to split these albums but ultimately gave up and called it a tie. You can't get more different than K$'s punk-pop explosion and Lana's sadcore classic but both inspire and man-handle my soul for very different reasons. I've already reviewed Warrior so there's not much point of talking about it at length. In short, I think it's the bravest pure-pop album of 2012.
Lady Dolla takes risks that would send your fave into a coma. She writes an album as diverse and daring as anything Grimes or Santigold have ever produced - only Ke$ha also delivers an anthemic chorus and lyrics that tap into the human condition with the ease and insight of a poet. I love every song on this gorgeous slice of Americana and live in hope of seeing the savior of American pop perform these classics live.
Now Lana. What to say? This record came out in January and has been a firm friend pf mine for the entire year. Critics were quick to tear Born To Die down, calling it a fake and manufactured but - as usual - they completely missed the point. It doesn't matter that Lana Del Rey is a character in the same way that Lady Gaga is.
The doomed beauty queen is obviously the woman that Elizabeth Grant always wanted to be and she pours her entire being into her new persona. Born To Die is the blood, sweat and smeared make-up of a stunning beautiful yet completely dysfunctional socialite. Some interpreted that as superficial but how is Lana's experience any less authentic than being a fat and lonely bitch like Adele?
This is her life and she serves it up warts and all. I'm not claiming that there's anything particularly edgy or different about Born To Die. At its heart this is just a pop album dressed up in indie clothing but I'll be fucked if I can find a bad song. "Video Games" is a classic. "Born To Die" pierces my very being. "Summertime Sadness" is depressive perfection. "Blue Jeans" is as sexy and demented as mainstream pop gets. "National Anthem" turns an entire genre inside out.
Dismiss Lana as a fraud if you like but know you're judging a book by its a cover. And a book that will live on in the hearts and minds of the lonely and downhearted for decades at that.