Though there were a lot of great albums released throughout the entire year, it seemed that the biggest concentration of great albums were found in the early summer and early fall. Among releases mentioned earlier in the list, those such as Walk The Moon, Best Coast, and The Temper Trap stood out as superior summer releases, while The Script, Matchbox Twenty, and P!nk got their turns in my playlist when the leaves turned outdoors. In these next ten albums, comprising numbers 30 through 21 in my year-end list, many of the artists represented were the soundtracks to my summer semester at school and the beginning of my junior year.
30. Adam Lambert — Trespassing
Released May 15, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
After being introduced to Adam Lambert‘s sophomore album era with leading ballad “Better Than I Know Myself” and the electro-pop uptempo “Never Close Our Eyes,” I was unsure what to expect of Trespassing when it was released in May after a delay from its original March release date. Now three years out from his runner-up performance on the eighth season of American Idol (winner Kris Allen appears later on this chart), Lambert ran with his freedom from the reality-television spotlight, creating an album with personality, mixed genres and influences, and glam. Trespassing opens with the title track, which combines a funky bass line with hand-clapping percussion and slight electronic polish, setting the scene for the rest of the twelve-song set (fifteen on the deluxe version). While there are a few songs with an electro-pop center aimed toward commercial viability, the album is most focused toward the dancefloor. Fast tempos, club-friendly funk and disco beats and percussive electric bass riffs pervade tracks like “Shady,” Pharrell-produced “Kickin’ In,” and “Pop That Lock,” giving the album an electric, pulsing feel suitable for an artist whose fans are referred to as Glamberts. In a sharp contrast, however, the final quarter of the album dives into deeply personal topics for Lambert, most evidently on the dark, LGBT-focused closing ballad “Outlaws Of Love.” Though none of the three singles released from the album were successful radio hits, Trespassing shows that Lambert has the chops, both in vocals and musical style, to continue releasing cohesive, confident pop records.
29. Ellie Goulding — Halcyon
Released October 9, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
2012 was a breakout year for Ellie Goulding in the United States, during which “Lights” became a chart-topping hit, she scored a number of TV syncs, and a new song was included in the Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 soundtrack. While her debut album Lights was released in March 2011, just over a year after its original UK release, sophomore set Halcyon received a worldwide release in October. In contrast to the electronic-tinged folk/singer-songwriter feel of Goulding’s debut, she moves closer toward the electronic edge of the spectrum on Halcyon. She also gravitates toward a darker, edgier sound, with songs of hopelessly chasing after love, moving on from previous relationships, and attempts to heal; powerful phrases like “lifeless frame,” “soul bleeding in the dark,” and “dead in the water” are used as clear visual explanations of her emotions. The soundscape of tracks like “Explosions” and “I Know You Care” add to this emotional element, with humming electronics, echoing choirs, and tender string and grand piano accompaniments. As she sings on lead single “Anything Could Happen,” she is “letting darkness grow” in her lyrical material, but when combined with her hoarse, vibrato-laced voice and prowess in an appealing mélange of genres, it creates an artful, haunting composition that appeals to fans of modern electronic dance and adult contemporary alike.
28. Ke$ha — Warrior
Released December 4, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
The pop culture presence of Ke$ha is rather deceiving: from stories to puking in celebrity trashcans and having sexual relations with a ghost to single releases focused on partying and living it up, the average radio listener would be unaware of her topical and sonic diversity. On her sophomore full-length release, Warrior, Ke$ha reduces the sleazy glitter-pop formula of her gargantuan debut Animal by half, adding in a heavy dosage of rock influence and a splash of ballad-boosted emotion. This allows her to keep from sounding monotonous: ballads such as “Wonderland” and Phil Collins-sound-alike “Love Into The Light” combine with rock-fueled “Dirty Love” (featuring punk rock icon Iggy Pop) and “Only Wanna Dance With You” to add new lyrical, emotional, and instrumental facets. Even songs with her trademark electronic elements, like standouts “Warrior,” “Crazy Kids” and “Supernatural,” hum with an air of fierce, punchy percussion and sharp attitude to match, evolving from the sound of her previous radio singles. From an outsider’s perspective, Ke$ha may seem ditzy and classless, but her ability to capture trends and twist genres, her aggressive and thought-provoking twists on typical sexuality, and intelligence (she reportedly has an IQ exceeding 140 points) reveal the careful calculation of lyrical content, musical style, and appearance that make her somewhat of a deceiving mad genius.
27. Delta Rae — Carry The Fire
Released June 19, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
One of my most exciting new finds of the year was in Durham, North Carolina sextet Delta Rae. After forming the band in 2009 with three siblings (Ian, Eric, and Brittany Hölljes) and vocalist Elizabeth Hopkins, Delta Rae added percussionist Mike McKee and bass guitarist Grant Emerson in 2010. In January 2012, they were signed to Sire Records before their debut album Carry The Fire was released in June. I didn’t come around to it until earlier this month, but in the fall I quickly fell in love with their murder ballad “Bottom Of The River,” which was previously featured in Amazon MP3’s Artists On The Rise series and as part of a VH1 You Oughta Know campaign. Once I finally listened to the album, I was quickly enthralled by the group’s musicality and vocal strength. Similarly to popular indie-folk duo The Civil Wars, Delta Rae features male and female lead vocals, but due to the additional members in the group, their sound is often more loud and powerful. They also use quite a bit of instrumentation to supplement the music, with occasional piano, string, and brass accompaniments as well as less traditional supplements, including chains and trash can lids, creating moods both dark (“Fire,” “Bottom Of The River”) and warm (“If I Loved You,” “Unlike Any Other”). Vocals soar over the instrumental arrangements with power and conviction such that the emotion of the songwriting is showcased front and center. With the perfect blend of folk, country, and rock and emotive lyricism and delivery, Carry The Fire is a great introduction to a band that has set themselves up for a healthy, successful future.
26. Taylor Swift — Red
Released October 22, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes
Much have been said since the October release of Taylor Swift‘s Red related to her multiple high-profile relationships and how they surface on the album, along with whether her career at country radio can last with a collection that skews closer to her pop audience, featuring collaborations with some of pop’s finest producers in Max Martin and Shellback. However, what I found most interesting was the fluidity of genres explored throughout Red. Though Swift’s career began in the country lane with early singles such as “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops On My Guitar,” she often received crossover airplay on pop radio, particularly during the Fearless era with pop-friendly singles such as “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me.” With her contemporary material often treading and blurring the line between pop and country genres, it should be expected that Red goes a step further, adding in elements of rock, folk, and dubstep. Rather than causing the album to be too scattered (though the sequencing is a little jerky, with pop anthems sandwiched between more touching country songs), it creates musical diversity that is brought together through songwriting and delivery. Though only twenty-two years old upon the release of the album, Swift is well-received in the industry as an impressive songwriter, no matter the genre. She also masters the ability to plant hooks in songs of all genres, from the forte cheers of chart-topping lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and playful “Stay Stay Stay” to the hopeful closer “Begin Again.” Red offers something to appreciate for all types of music fans, from the poptimists (“We Are Never,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “22”) to the country fans (“Begin Again,” “Red,” “Treacherous”) and even those who prefer rock (“State Of Grace,” “The Last Time,” “Everything Has Changed”), and Taylor Swift is perfectly happy appealing to all of them, rather than settling in one direction (pun intended).
25. John Mayer — Born & Raised
Released May 22, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
In a normal year, a John Mayer album would achieve a top-ten year-end placement by auto-default, due to his status as one of my favorite artists. However, due to the large amount of music I consumed this year as well as the (understandable) lack of promotion and attention to the album, Born & Raised must settle for a position at the bottom of my chart’s top half. Despite that, this does not reveal any negative qualities about its material: particularly after 2009’s disappointing Battle Studies, Born & Raised ranks among Mayer’s best releases. Turning toward a more Americana sound instead of the adult-contemporary pop/rock and blues of his previous releases, Mayer utilizes the album as an emotional release from ghosts in his past, including poorly-chosen comments to high-profile audiences and the ends of several relationships, including one with Taylor Swift that ended in her penning of the obvious kiss-off song “Dear John.” Relocating to California, he dug into his country and Americana roots, releasing an album that sounds more at home in the 1970s than the 2010s. Nevertheless, the songwriting and guitar performance that stood out on prior releases return in full form, with a more apologetic and redeeming tone. Songs like “Shadow Days” and “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey” show his willingness to move on from his past and start anew, and the light instrumental arrangements that accompany him throughout most of the album add a layer of soulful emotion. While health complications and online abstinence have kept Mayer out of the spotlight for much of the year, 2013 will prove whether his apologies are sincere and his act is clean.
24. Norah Jones — Little Broken Hearts
Released May 1, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
After her career got an immediate rocket-launch from the massive success of her 2002 debut Come Away With Me, Norah Jones faded from mainstream popularity, being seen as a sleepy jazz pianist and singer-songwriter despite the country roots of follow-up Feels Like Home and the gradual move toward more contemporary music in the two albums that followed. Fueled by a breakup and her inclusion on Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi’s 2011 album Rome, Jones spent a summer in the studio with Danger Mouse (né Brian Burton) and emerged with Little Broken Hearts, a collection of songs that pairs her heartbroken emotions with the sleek, electronic production that is his trademark. Though the more pop-arranged selections on the album are bolstered by the production, like “Say Goodbye” and lead single “Happy Pills,” others use Burton’s skills as a shield from Jones’s emotional output, requiring an active ear to truly grasp the pain felt in the lyrics. Much of the album has a dark, brooding undertone, which pairs well with its overall mood. This is most plainly heard on the gripping murder ballad and album closer “Miriam,” one of the best tracks of the entire year, in which Jones delivers in near monotone her last words to the mistress who cheated on her now-murdered husband. The eerie, dark curl of the final verse, in which Jones’s character kills off the mistress as well (“You know you done me wrong / I’m gonna smile when I take your life”), shows that Norah Jones is anything but dull and, five solo albums into her career, still has a lot of surprises left to offer.
23. Morning Parade — Morning Parade
Released June 19, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
Morning Parade is a five-piece English alternative rock band with a mainstream sound and a penchant for melancholy melodies. Following the March UK release of their self-titled debut via Parlophone Records, it received an American release in June after the group signed to Capitol Records. Morning Parade kicks off at full speed with opener “Blue Winter” and leading US single “Headlights,” both of which dig in with catchy hooks and heavy instrumentals. The band has stated in interviews that they aim for stadium-filling anthems in their songs, and much of their debut fulfills this goal even if none of the material is particularly groundbreaking. In addition to the aforementioned standouts, “Us & Ourselves” and “Under The Stars” ramp up with increasingly powerful instrumentals, chanting background vocals, and lead vocals from Steve Sparrow that end in forte howls. Even the album’s slower selections feel appropriate in a live setting: “Half Litre Bottle” is a haunting story of the perils of alcoholism as told by the brother of a deceased addict, and when I saw them open for The Wombats in September, the album’s closer “Born Alone” stood out as as a highlight of the set. With a mainstream mindset and stadium-ready material, Morning Parade is a strong potential candidate to be a new face of alternative rock in the years to come.
22. Emeli Sandé — Our Version Of Events
Released June 5, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
Despite being just twenty-four years old upon the release of her debut album Our Version Of Events, Emeli Sandé shows maturity and sophistication far beyond her age. The album stacks songs of varying tempos and genres, most prominently pop, soul, and R&B, and she shines equally well in all elements. This makes the album’s highlights somewhat mixed in sound: while the rhythmic opener “Heaven,” rollicking single “Next To Me,” and uplifting Naughty Boy collaboration “Wonder” feature bombastic drums and urban arrangements, ballads like “Breaking The Law” and “Read All About It, Pt. III” stand out for their moving delivery and songwriting. Throughout the album, Sandé’s smooth tone cuts through arrangements, whether acoustic or highly-produced, with power and passion. As previously mentioned, her songwriting is a highlight of Our Version Of Events; Sandé has a co-writing credit on every song on the album, including all original bonus tracks, and it is bolstered by the heartfelt and meaningful lyrics. She could feasibly lighten up somewhat on future releases — the high number of ballads and midtempos tend to weigh down the album, whereas tracks like “Next To Me” and “Wonder” show a more youthful facet of her personality — but Our Version Of Events has safely positioned Emeli Sandé as a force to be reckoned with as her career progresses.
21. David Byrne & St. Vincent — Love This Giant
Released September 11, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
Though both David Byrne & St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) are well-known and respected in their respective musical fields, I was fully unaware of their musical contributions before late this summer, when “Who” was released as the lead single from collaborative album Love This Giant. Both artists are generally guitar-playing pop/rock musicians, but this album features very little guitar work, opting instead for a lively section of brass and reeds. These arrangements, rather different from most modern pop and rock music and certainly unique among the albums on this year-end list, give Love This Giant a certain flair; the trumpets, trombones, tubas, and horns essentially act as a third collaborator, holding Byrne and Clark together. While the two vocalists trade off lead vocals track-by-track on most of the album, the horns are present throughout, creating funky, jarring moods on “Who” and “Weekend In The Dust” while becoming wobbling and hectic on “The Forest Awakes” and “I Should Watch TV.” It feels similar to the pit orchestra that accompanies many onstage musicals, creating settings and scenes with more clarity and feeling than the characters could alone. Adding to this element are the album’s inquisitive, self-reflective lyrics: Byrne’s and Clark’s characters focus in on their own actions in “TV” and “I Am An Ape” and look at the world from a judging distance on album closer “Outside Of Space And Time.” However, my enjoyment from Love This Giant comes less from the presence of David Byrne and St. Vincent, actually, and more due to my love of the Giant brass ensemble.
With just twenty albums to go, we’re quickly approaching what I thought were the best of the best album releases in 2012, from Idols and Icelandic bands to ska and southern soul. Your comments are welcome: post below or mention me on Twitter.