Like many of the bands that make it into the annual flurry of Top 10 lists, consensus itself may be a bit overrated. This was a year without a central nation-galvanizing album — and last year’s, Adele’s “21,’’ was the highest-selling this year, too. Without an obvious album of the year, critics can enjoy a more free-roaming diet.
Suffice it to say, it was a filling year. Our picks for the year’s best albums come from the tip-top of the charts and the very edges of the underground, representing rock, folk, electronic, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, classical, world music, and all the hybrids in between.
James Reed pick: FRANK OCEAN,
The back story and hype nearly eclipsed the album itself. Just before he released his debut, Ocean posted online an open letter explaining that he had fallen in love with a man who didn’t return his feelings. It was refreshing, then, to realize the songs on “Channel Orange’’ packed just as much honesty and emotional heft, a spare collection of R&B and soul that bent the boundaries of those genres.
James Reed pick: LORD HURON,
Led by Ben Schneider, a Michigan singer-songwriter now living in Los Angeles, this indie-folk ensemble delivered mightily on the early promise of its EPs. Folk and country were simply the starting points on an album transcendent with global sounds, watercolor harmonies, and a vast love of nature.
James Reed pick: FRANKIE ROSE,
The art of the perfect pop song is elusive, and yet Rose mastered it on her second solo album. With glimmers of 1980s guitar bands such as the Smiths (and a dash of the Go-Go’s), “Interstellar’’ was concise and celebratory at once, the kind of record that left you wanting more but electrified by what you just heard.
James Reed pick: MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO,
“Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone’’
Nina Simone was an iconoclast, practically a genre unto herself. Jazz, blues, folk, pop — she did it all, and on her own terms. Ndegeocello’s salute to her legacy was equally quixotic, deconstructing the songs and rebuilding them as soulful elegies to a woman who would have appreciated such fierceness.
James Reed pick: LINDI ORTEGA,
“Cigarettes & Truckstops’’
That little quiver you hear in Ortega’s voice – the one that suggests she’ll burst into tears any minute now – is real. Conjuring the sass of country spitfires past (Loretta Lynn) and present (Neko Case), this Canadian singer-songwriter could also turn tender and bewitching with a line like “If you want to get your fix/ Darlin’, use me.’’
James Reed pick: ANGEL OLSEN,
“Half Way Home’’
A folk singer with the heart and soul of a rocker and a voice as slippery as mercury, Olsen came on strong like a cosmic blues mama on her sophomore release. She turned her heartache inside out, belting and crooning about “fruitlessly waiting for someone not thinking before they start rushing to my door.’’
James Reed pick: LOS MÍTICOS DEL RITMO,
“Los Míticos del Ritmo’’
From Cali, Colombia, Los Míticos del Ritmo are the seven-piece studio band for British musician Will “Quantic’’ Holland, but the spotlight was theirs on this joyous album of instrumental cumbias. Among the originals was the most memorable cover of “Another One Bites the Dust’’ you’ll ever hear.
James Reed pick: JESSIE WARE,
This English soul siren rarely raised her voice on her debut. She didn’t need to. Everything you needed to know was right there in the smoke and sultriness of her stark vision of modern R&B. “Devotion’’ felt familiar and fresh at the same time, at the intersection of Sade and Beyoncé.
James Reed pick: PERFUME GENIUS,
“Put Your Back N 2 It’’
Step away from the speakers. That was the overwhelming sensation I got from listening to Mike Hadreas’s deeply felt second album as Perfume Genius. Often featuring just piano and his tremulous voice, the songs touched on dark moments (isolation, substance abuse, pedophilia) that somehow imparted a sense of hope and resilience.
James Reed pick: DAYNA KURTZ,
I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: They don’t make singers like Dayna Kurtz anymore. Unsung and unsinkable, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter got down and dirty on this album, which felt like a crash course on the past 60 years of American music.
James Reed biggest surprise: NORAH JONES,
“Little Broken Hearts’’
For anyone who has ever called her Snorah (and you know you have), Jones dispelled the notion that she’s predictable with this sly, after-hours album produced by Danger Mouse.
Sarah Rodman pick: THE AVETT BROTHERS,
The masterful 2009 album “I and Love and You’’ was a tough act to follow, but the whip-smart, harmony-loving roots rockers tap another very rich vein, allowing their pop instincts, country roots, and rock energy to mingle like guests at one of the year’s most enjoyable parties.
Sarah Rodman pick: FIONA APPLE,
“The Idler Wheel . . . ’’
To paraphrase herself: What she is is what she is, because she does what she does and it is uniquely, joyously her own sphere. Yet, whether soft and tremulous, wild-eyed and flailing, or steely and imperious, Apple extends a hand of accessibility to her personal pop soundscapes.
Sarah Rodman pick: JAMEY JOHNSON,
“Living For a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran’’
Hearing all of Cochran’s songs in one place offers a crystalline picture of his many songwriting strengths, including a relatable plainspokenness, an achingly real sense of vulnerability, and sly humor. Johnson wisely enlisted a cast of singers and players — Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and more — who understand those strengths, and the album is a testament to the very concept of timelessness.
Sarah Rodman pick: JACK WHITE,
With a flair for both grand-scale bombast and intimate late-night confessionals, the longtime band man (the White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather) stepped out confidently on his own, moving easily from wobbly old-time boogies to jagged guitar rockers.
Sarah Rodman pick: FRANK OCEAN,
While there were many stories about Ocean in 2012, the most compelling narrative was the one found here, in the sumptuous curves of his languid grooves, the allure of his falsetto, and the emotions and imagery of his personal tales.
Sarah Rodman pick: The Gaslight Anthem,
If urgency were currency, this New Jersey rock band would be one of the richest in all the land, having pumped out another album that begs to be cranked up loud and sung along with, as a waterfall of words that sound like your own thoughts come tumbling out in a tangle of love, confusion, anger, and joy.
Sarah Rodman pick: ALABAMA SHAKES,
“Boys & Girls’’
If you couldn’t get to one of the quartet’s roof-raising, soul-reinvigorating, foot-stomping live shows, in which frontwoman/guitarist Brittany Howard laid it all bare, this buzzed-about debut, bursting with youthful enthusiasm and slow-burning rockers, was a more than acceptable way to pass the time until you could.
Sarah Rodman pick: PINK,
“The Truth About Love’’
Few current hitmakers know themselves as well as Pink. She traffics in the radio-ready, yet always manages — with the help of key collaborators like Butch Walker, Max Martin, Dan Wilson, and Greg Kurstin — to locate the honest emotions at the core of her hard candy pop. From lighthearted musings to pitch-black despair, from bubblegum-grunge to acoustic balladry, Pink knows her “Truth.’’
Sarah Rodman pick: DR. JOHN,
Whatever mojo Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys worked to relight the fire under Dr. John should be bottled and guarded because the results are a reminder of just how funky, gritty, dark, and delightful the good Dr. can be when he puts his mind to it.
Sarah Rodman pick: Ingrid Michaelson,
How do you mend a broken heart? Options include writing, laughing, crying, singing, commiserating, ranting, and picking through the wreckage for clues as to what happened and how to avoid those mistakes in the future. Michaelson does all of that and more and, as a bonus, wraps it in hummable pop melodies.
Sarah Rodman biggest surprise: SINEAD O’CONNOR,
“How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?’’
The Irish singer-songwriter has endured a tough few years personally, but musically she rebounded in a big way with this vibrant collection that covers her spectrum of interests, from reggae jams to sultry torch songs to full-throttle rockers. Her voice remains a bracing force and her sense of spirit is palpable.
Michael Andor Brodeur pick: GRIMES,
For a good stretch of 2012, I was unable to listen to anything but “Visions,’’ the full-length debut from Montreal’s Claire Boucher. Effortlessly hooky, deeply weird, vaguely goth, and rosy with a sprightly spirit of possibility, “Visions’’ (especially transcendent confections like “Oblivion’’) gives me hope for the youngsters, and an interplanetary jogging soundtrack.
Michael Andor Brodeur pick: DIIV,
Part-time Beach Fossil Z. Cole Smith’s full-length outing as DIIV announces him as an indie-pop force to be reckoned with. The current nu-gaze wave may be on the verge of crashing, but “Oshin’’ has a forever feel to it — ’80s post-punk, ’90s shoegaze, and ’00s dream-pop come together in a luminous (if often unintelligible) hybrid.
Michael Andor Brodeur pick: HOLY OTHER,
In the clubs this year, much more happened in the shadows than in the spotlight, and mysterious young Manchester producer Holy Other was among the most interesting things going bump in the night. Ghostly voices drift down haunted hallways, and his beats are like knocks on a door you’re too scared to answer.
Michael Andor Brodeur pick: ANDY STOTT,
On his third album, another rising Manchurian producer, Andy Stott, continues to extract the dark matter from dub techno, but this time, his sub-basement bass and knuckly beats churn beneath the delicate filigrees of Alison Skidmore’s voice, which Stott clips into stray phonemes and breaths.
Michael Andor Brodeur pick: FRANK OCEAN,
Much has been made of the significance of “Channel Orange’’ as a bold personal statement from the young singer and Odd Future cohort Frank Ocean, but its gold star isn’t just for bravery. Ocean is also a restless explorer, and “Channel Orange’’ is among the year’s most ambitious, musically rich offerings.
Michael Andor Brodeur pick: JESSIE WARE,
UK singer Jessie Ware has spent the past couple of years popping up everywhere — appearing on tracks with Sampha, SBTRKT, Katy B, and Joker, and making her own deep impression with smoldering singles like “Running’’ (masterfully remixed this year by the young brothers of Disclosure). “Devotion’’ is as solid as it is tender; a debut shot through with longing and promise.
Michael Andor Brodeur pick: HOMEBOY SANDMAN,
“First of a Living Breed’’
You can get a sense of Homeboy Sandman’s knack for clever flips in the title of his fourth LP, and you can feel it in the unparalleled flow he sets loose on each track. “Not Really’’ is the most devastatingly gentle smackdown of everything that’s wrong with the bling-driven rap on the radio. Spoils are fine; skills are way better.
Michael Andor Brodeur pick: FIRST AID KIT,
“The Lion’s Roar’’
If death itself ever went on tour, First Aid Kit would make a great opening act. Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg write stark, spectral folk songs that chill your spine and rattle your ribs, and their tight harmonies wrap around each other like the cords of a hangman’s rope.
Michael Andor Brodeur pick: DAPHNI,
Canadian multi-talent Dan Snaith adds another name to his moniker stash on this more dancefloor-oriented selection, concocted while he was stuck with DJ gigs on tour. No rookie mix, “JIAOLONG’’ showcases Snaith’s expert control over his sonics, as well as his willingness to abandon that control altogether.
Michael Andor Brodeur pick: LE1F,
Frankly put, us gayfolk don’t often see ourselves reflected in the chrome of hip-hop, except as an occasional punch line or backhanded catchphrase (thanks again, Cam’ron). That’s no reason in itself to dig queer NYC rapper Le1f’s debut, but its a context that only makes its many triumphs more electric. Rap’s always been raw; Le1f upgrades it to fierce.
Michael Andor Brodeur biggest surprise: PRINCE RAMA,
“Top Ten Hits of the End of the World’’
Sisters (and ex-locals) Taraka & Nimai Larson created a faux-compilation of 10 made-up bands (complete with photos) who all perished in an invented apocalypse. A flight of fancy like this could easily cross into real-disaster territory, but precious pop gems emerge from the smoldering waste. A sublime sham.
Martin Caballero pick: Death Grips,
“The Money Tree’’
Loud, aggressive, and about as subtle as a kick to the face, the first of two albums released by the Sacramento band this year features them channeling the spirit of 2 Live Crew on “I’ve Seen Footage’’ and dreaming of beating up cops on the glitch-happy “Hustle Bones.’’ It’s also unrepentantly awesome.
Martin Caballero pick: Ab-Soul,
This quietly brilliant sophomore release from the Carson, Calif., rapper is nothing less than staggering at times; his pointed stances on relationships (“Double Standards’’) and government conspiracies (“Terrorist Threats,’’ with Danny Brown) are highlights, but best is the staggering confessional cut “Book of Soul.’’
Martin Caballero pick: Roc Marciano,
As brutal and single-minded as his namesake, Long Island’s Roc Marciano channels the vividly detailed crime-soaked lyricism of New York forefathers Kool G Rap and Prodigy throughout his cinematic second album, filled with dusty drums and minimalist jazz and psych rock loops (see the Q-Tip produced “Thread Count’’).
Martin Caballero pick: Kendrick Lamar,
“Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City’’
Expectations were justifiably high for the major label debut of Dr. Dre’s Compton-born protege, but few could have predicted something this brilliant: billed as a “short film,’’ GKMC is a rewarding, absorbing listen with rich characters and story, as the titular kid’s survival struggle unfolds over stellar production.
Martin Caballero pick: Killer Mike,
When finally paired with the right producer (El-P), Atlanta’s Killer Mike is given a real shot at fulfilling his potential on a full-length project, and he doesn’t miss his chance. Brimming with confidence, Mike stomps through 12 potent tracks of story raps (“JoJo’s Chillin’’), political fire and brimstone (“Reagan’’), and the testimonial title track.
Martin Caballero pick: Nas,
“Life Is Good’’
Post-divorce Nas isn’t just hip-hop’s reigning premier lyricist — he’s happy too, which translates into his most focused and inviting album ever. He eases into his various roles as street narrator (“Loco-Motive’’), wise elder (“Daughters’’), and purebred emcee (“Nasty’’) like someone with another 20 years left in him, assuming he continues using beats like these.
Martin Caballero pick: The Alchemist,
If there’s a niche market for instrumental hip-hop opuses based on “Rocky IV’’ and Soviet-era Euro prog-rock, Alchemist has found it not a moment too soon. A pastiche of lo-fi samples and nods to ’80s pop culture make this 30-track suite greater than the sum of its parts.
Martin Caballero pick: Action Bronson & Party SupplieS,
New York rap’s salvation won’t come in the form of any grand statement, but in a lot more small ones like this ludicrously fun record from Queens chef-cum-rapper Action Bronson and producer Party Supplies. Hastily assembled from found YouTube samples and single takes on a bad mike, it’s lowbrow brilliance.
Martin Caballero pick: Flying Lotus,
“Until the Quiet Comes’’
The LA-based producer has spent the last few years wowing critics with his talent for heavily textured and nuanced beats, but his fourth album disposes of the indulgent flourishes in favor of a more expressive approach on cuts like the title track and “All the Secrets.’’
Martin Caballero pick: El-P,
“Cancer 4 Cure’’
The former Company Flow rapper/producer’s third album doesn’t share Nas’s sentiments: El-P is at his best when openly grappling with his various issues, which he gladly fleshes out in detail over some his best production in years. “Full Retard’’ pounds like a cheap beer blackout, but so does “The Jig Is Up,’’ with pathos thrown in for good measure.
Martin Caballero biggest surprise: WILL C,
“Adieu or Die’’
An appropriately trippy journey through the Beach Boys discography, Will C’s sample-based instrumental album approaches the material with deep respect and reverence that result in some knockout moments (“Dialation’’) but still with a warm wit amongst the madness.
Siddhartha Mitter pick: Céu,
“Caravana Sereia Bloom’’
Made of songs from the road, laced with the rhythms and inspired by the wide-angle landscapes of Brazil’s northeast, this muscular and poetic outing from the São Paulo singer is her best and most rock-driven yet.
Siddhartha Mitter pick: Debo Band,
Disclaimer: I wrote liner notes for this album. That’s how much I enjoyed this long-awaited debut CD from Boston’s Ethiopian-led soul outfit, which reimagines 1970s Ethio-jazz in original and provocative ways.
Siddhartha Mitter pick: Frank Ocean,
His official debut was even better than his fantastic mixtape “Nostalgia (Ultra).’’ For all the hype, Frank Ocean’s the real deal, his sound blessed with that eerie, sun-washed lethargy that Southern California uniquely breeds.
Siddhartha Mitter pick: Gregory Porter,
Male jazz singers with fiber and righteous soul energy rarely make it big these days. It couldn’t happen to a better one than Porter, who allies Nat King Cole songcraft and Gil Scott-Heron consciousness, with an ace band backing.
Siddhartha Mitter pick: Janka Nabay and
the Bubu Gang,
“En Yay Sah’’
The obscure, mystical, deeply rural bubu music of inland Sierra Leone seeds this made-in-Brooklyn, N.Y., collaboration by the hypnotic Nabay and his merry crew of hip electronic-rock mavens.
Siddhartha Mitter pick: Just A Band,
“Sorry for the Delay’’
Another superb album of finely dosed pop and house flavors from the Nairobi foursome who call themselves, most accurately, “Africa’s Super-Nerdy Electro-pop/Art Collective.’’
Siddhartha Mitter pick: Neneh Cherry & The Thing,
“The Cherry Thing’’
Cherry’s return after a long absence is cause enough for celebration; that it’s with the dissonant, turbulent jazz outfit the Thing on this funky and highly experimental album is that much more of a treat.
Siddhartha Mitter pick: Robert Glasper
An album that fully delivers on the promise of its title, and tells the world about the rich conversation underway between hip jazz and soul milieus. Come for Erykah Badu singing “Afro Blue,’’ and stay for the whole set.
Siddhartha Mitter pick: Sierra Leone’s Refugee
The best yet from the Sierra Leonean crew, with a spectrum of highlife to Caribbean flavors underscoring shared cultural histories of the Black Atlantic. Also: very funky.
Siddhartha Mitter pick: Vijay Iyer Trio,
From pianist Iyer and pals, yet another memorable entry in jazz’s current flourishing phase. This one explores speed, acceleration, and ultimately the idea of progress, through equal application of technique and soul.
Siddhartha Mitter biggest surprise: Sasha go hard
“Do You Know Who I Am’’ (mixtape)
The Chicago drill scene is the anti-Drake: young, rough, potentially self-destructive (Chief Keef). It’s redeemed by its strong female characters, of whom Sasha is the most charismatic.
Jeremy Eichler pick: BRITTEN, BACH AND LIGETI: Works for Cello,
Miklós Perényi, cello
This modern-tilted solo disc, by a Hungarian cellist who deserves to be far better known, is full of playing both wise and electric.
Jeremy Eichler pick: “FERNE GELIEBTE’’: LIEDER,
Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Gerold Huber, piano
Warmly burnished and richly expressive performances of German lieder, from Beethoven and Haydn, to Schoenberg and Berg.
Jeremy Eichler pick: ELGAR AND CARTER:
Alisa Weilerstein, cello; Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Fiercely committed performances of Elgar’s Romantic staple and Elliott Carter’s angular modernist essay for cello and orchestra, partnered by Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin.
Jeremy Eichler pick: LIGETI/BEETHOVEN:
Works for piano,
Jeremy Denk, piano
Ligeti’s exhilarating avant-garde etudes are here wrapped around Beethoven’s luminous Sonata No. 32 (Op. 111) — played with musical intelligence and abundant technique.
Jeremy Eichler pick: THE DEBUSSY EDITION
Issued to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, this 18-disc box set contains performances from several top-tier interpreters. Modern musical revolution for the price per disc of a latte.
Jeremy Eichler pick: SCHUBERT:
Works for Piano, Vol. 2,
Paul Lewis, piano
The eloquent British pianist continues his survey of Schubert’s piano works, dispensed here with an elusive admixture of refinement and soul.
Jeremy Eichler pick: ESA-PEKKA SALONEN:
“OUT OF NOWHERE,’’
Leila Josefowicz, violin; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Salonen’s gleaming, polyglot Violin Concerto, performed by Josefowicz, was a highlight of the conductor’s visit to the BSO this year. Here it is, recorded with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Jeremy Eichler pick: MOZART:
Kristian Bezuidenhout, forte-piano; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
A vital, sparkling musicality underlies these performances of Concertos Nos. 17 and 22.
Jeremy Eichler pick: MOZART:
“LA FINTA GIARDINIERA,’’’
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and soloists; René Jacobs, conductor
Jacobs has made yet another startlingly fresh Mozart opera recording, this time turning to an early work deserving of new champions.
Jeremy Eichler pick: BACH:
“ST. MATTHEW PASSION,’’
Simon Rattle, conductor; Peter Sellars, ritualization; Berlin Philharmonic, vocal soloists, and Rundfunkchor Berlin
A DVD of Sellars’s touching and deeply humane staging of Bach’s “Matthew Passion,’’ recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonie.
Jeremy Eichler biggest surprise: “THE ART OF
The Boston violinist died this year at 101, and Arbiter records released this two-disc survey of remarkable performances culled from over five decades. Totenberg was revered as a teacher. Here he is allowed to speak as an artist.