There's not one single thread that runs throughout the finest music of 2012, offering any sense of connection, cohesiveness or zeitgeist-capturing conceptual continuity. What we were offered this year was essentially a vast mess of disconnected sounds and stylings. Our job was to dig around long enough to find the diamonds in the rough.
Here are 20 of my favorites from 2012.
1. Richard Hawley, "Standing At the Sky's Edge"
Inexplicably, Hawley has not been able to break in a major way in the United States. "Standing At the Sky's Edge," his sixth album, finds the British guitarist, singer, songwriter and former member of Pulp favoring a psychedelic wall of sound that is one part Echo & the Bunnymen and the rest pure Hawley – gorgeously moody, impeccably sung, brilliantly conceived and utterly timeless rock music. The singer's bittersweet baritone conveys myriad emotions here, but Hawley's default position is a sort of tattered optimism, a deeply Romantic insistence on maintaining grace under pressure.
2. Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball"
"Wrecking Ball" arrived like a howl directly from the soul of an outraged American. Its targets – those who perpetrated, covered up, benefited from and then were bailed out of the Wall Street scandal, mostly – suffered the wrath of this country's poet laureate of the proletariat. Springsteen screamed for the voiceless 99 percent, while the E Street Band, joined in spots by Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, created an almighty, glorious racket. This is not Springsteen's most musically ambitious collection, but it is certainly one of his most heroic. (The bonus track "Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale)" offered a spine-tingling hint of the full album of string-laced songs Springsteen recorded and then abandoned in favor of "Wrecking Ball's" tales of betrayal and moral outrage.)
3. Rush, "Clockwork Angels"
A great year for one of progressive rock's most consistently adventurous bands. "Clockwork Angels" is a dense, sophisticated, and incredibly heavy collection that also makes plenty of room for light/shade dynamics. The tour behind the album included a brutally great show at First Niagara Center, and found the band joined by a string section. Now, the trio will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2013. Well deserved.
4. Animal Collective, "Centipede Hz"
As beautifully weird as ever, Animal Collective stretched its wings a bit this time around, bringing the guitars a touch closer to the front, and notching back the reverb a few ticks. The result was an album that sounded like the soundtrack to the morning after a particularly psychedelic evening.
5. David Byrne & St. Vincent, "Love This Giant"
A cross-generational celebration of gorgeous esoterica. Though the two were never really in the same room together while crafting this collaborative effort, somehow it worked.
6. Cat Power, "Sun"
Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, crafted heartbreaking beauty here, with an earthiness that counterbalanced the mildly techno feel of the rhythm tracks. "Sun" is haunting, and Marshall sounds haunted, ill at ease, perhaps even in a bit of emotional danger throughout. A deeply human, beautifully troubling effort.
7. Field Music, "Plumb"
This English band is still flying beneath the radar, but "Plumb" sounds like a prog-rock band covering the Flaming Lips – it's ambitious, trippy, but impossibly accessible. And it sounds best when played in its vinyl incarnation. (Buy the wax – you get a free digital download along with it.)
8. Trey Anastasio, "Traveler"
The Phish guitarist/vocalist blasted one out of the park with this genre-transcending collection of songs. Somehow, Anastasio managed to play indie-rock like it was proggy jam music. It worked, 10 times over. "Scabbard" alone proves that Anastasio is one of the most compelling and wonderfully strange composers in modern music.
9. Porcupine Tree, "Octane Twisted"
With Porcupine Tree on hiatus while leader Steven Wilson pursues a startlingly fruitful solo career, this live album tracked during the band's last tour – behind the double disc "The Incident" – is a gift for fans of the band, and lovers of progressive music in general. At once bludgeoningly heavy and achingly refined.
10. The New Mastersounds, "Out On the Faultline"
This British four-piece bridges the gap between old school organ trios, seriously greasy '70s funk, Manchester rave sounds, Brit-pop and the jam-band scene.
Play it loud, and attempt to sit still. Good luck.
11. Beach House, "Bloom"
Dreamy, richly layered, at times transcendent indie pop.
12. Soundgarden, "King Animal"
The Seattle quartet returns with its first album in 17 years, as ferociously inventive as ever.
13. Japandroids, "Celebration Rock"
Punk-fueled indie-rock, the way it was meant to be played – loud, fast, loose and full of memorable hooks.
14. Dr. John, "Locked Down"
New Orleans street soul meets modern garage rock, via the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. Brilliant.
15. Muse, "The 2nd Law"
Ridiculously over the top. Muse confirms its spot as the Queen of its own generation.
16. Nas, "Life is Good"
Smart, soulful, underproduced, grittily poetic.
17. Neil Young, "Psychedelic Pill"
Young brings back Crazy Horse. Any questions? Good.
18. Jimmy Cliff, "Rebirth"
The greatest living proponent of Jamaican reggae delivers an album as stirringly powerful as his early, groundbreaking work.
19. Jack White, "Blunderbuss"
The first album that fully delivered on White's early promise. "Blunderbuss" offered elements of everything he's long done well, but for once, the songwriting was as interesting as the sounds themselves.
20. Storm Corrosion, "Storm Corrosion"
Steven Wilson joins with Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt for a moody, sometimes ambient, but more often finely detailed and compellingly melodic double album. Subtly progressive.