NEW YORK —
Maybe it was all the destruction from superstorm Sandy, the ugliness of the lengthy presidential campaign, or all the senseless killings, like the ones in Newtown, Conn., but so much of the music that people sought out in 2012 was fun and escapist.
After all, this year will be remembered as the one that brought us the innocent flirtation of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and the galloping “Gangnam Style” dance craze from Psy. Even the year’s other omnipresent hit, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” gained part of its popularity from an endless parade of parodies and tributes to how catchy the emotional breakup song is.
During trying times, it’s only natural to gravitate toward something uplifting, or at least distracting. Yes, the year’s biggest seller was Adele’s “21,” but that breakup album is a holdover from last year. (The diamond-selling album will become only the second two-time champ in history, following Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in 1982 and 1983.)
The bulk of this year’s best albums offer looks into different worlds — ones far removed from fiscal cliffs and insurance claims. Green Day turned a wild night out into a rocking three-album concept for “Uno!” “Dos!” and “Tre!” And New York’s fun. takes the angst of young adulthood and puffs it up into massive-sounding arena rock on “Some Nights,” while Taylor Swift provides a more intimate look at that generation’s relationship issues on “Red.” Bruce Springsteen wrote of today’s struggles in “Wrecking Ball,” but he was more concerned about hope than outlining destruction. “Hard times come and hard times go,” he repeats as a mantra in the title track, which is more of an anthem for survival than suffering, and one that will now forever be associated with “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief.”
That concert — billed as the biggest live musical event ever with a potential audience of 2 billion people worldwide, featuring Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, The Who and more — showed the paradox of the music industry in 2012. In the face of tragedy, so much of the country still turns to musicians for instruction and comfort. In many ways, the star power of many artists — from $50 million Pepsi “ambassador” Beyonce to the omnipresent One Direction — has never been bigger, even if their specific earnings from music continues to drop.
Maybe they need some more escapism themselves.
Here’s a look at the year’s best escapes:
1. Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange” (Def Jam): Frank Ocean is a different kind of soul man. He can rap tough or sing in the sweetest falsetto. He is equally at home using warm, live instrumentation and icy synths to make his points. While so much of hip-hop is concerned with wealth yielding happiness, he shows its lonelier side in “Super Rich Kids.” Sure, he made headlines by declaring his attraction to a man, but the real attention should go to the craft he puts into epic social commentary like “Pyramids” and complicated questions like “Bad Religion.”
2. fun., “Some Nights” (Fueled by Ramen): Nate Ruess wears his insecurities on his sleeve, right next to his heart. His style of rock, in “We Are Young,” especially, is so earnest and unjaded that he practically invites the criticism. Yet the New York band also knows that the well-crafted, Queenlike arena dreams they crafted will sound even bigger with their army of fans singing along.
3. Bruce Springsteen, “Wrecking Ball” (Columbia): It’s a testament to Springsteen’s skill that he can make an accurate portrayal of America’s economic struggles still sound fiery and uplifting, especially in the title track and “Death to My Hometown.”
4. The Vaccines, “Come of Age” (Columbia): “I’m not magnetic or mythical,” Justin Young lets us know in “Teenage Icon.” “I’m suburban and typical.” Nothing wrong with that, especially when it’s clear he’s also a talented student of Brit rock from the past half-century, fashioning his own take on punk, Merseybeat and Two Tone.
5. Japandroids, “Celebration Rock” (Poly vinyl): The most accurately titled album of the year. Everything about the Vancouver duo’s sophomore album says Pacific Northwest indie-rock party — nods to Nirvana, fuzzy guitars, circle pits and big grins while you scream along with “The House That Heaven Built.”
6. Taylor Swift, “Red” (Big Machine): T. Swizzle comes out as a full-fledged pop superstar, complete with a dubstep breakdown and some dance floor hooks, and she’s not looking back. Like, ever.
7. Usher, “Looking 4 Myself” (RCA): Look, I’m as surprised as the next person that Usher had this kind of album in him — one that bristles with innovation, artistry and ambition. He injects EDM beats with ‘60s soul on “Twisted,” crafts a new sort of R&B ballad in “Climax” and keeps us dancing with “Numb” and “Scream.”
8. BobMould, “Silver Age” (Merge): Bob Mould has long combined heavy guitars with memorable pop melodies, as a solo artist and in his bands Husker Du and Sugar. On “Silver Age,” that continues, but Mould adds more intense emotions and, often, a much-needed feeling of hope.
9. Alabama Shakes, “Boys and Girls” (ATO): Brittany Howard’s gorgeous singing — the stunning midpoint between Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse — is the star here and the spare, rootsy arrangements let her shine, especially in “Rise to the Sun” and “I Ain’t the Same.”
10. Leonard Cohen, “Old Ideas” (Columbia): The lyrics to the opening “Going Home” was seen as so moving and substantive that the New Yorker printed them as a poem. The melody of the lovely “Lullaby” sticks with you long after the song fades away. But it’s “Crazy to Love You,” a gorgeous, poignant tale that will last as long as Cohen’s other masterworks, including “Hallelujah” and “Bird on the Wire.”
11. Green Day, “Uno!”/“Dos!”/“Tre!” (Reprise): The ambitious trilogy meant to chronicle a wild night out and its aftermath is packed with winners, from “Oh Love” to “Dirty Rotten Bastards.” Unfortunately, it may not immediately get its due with singer Billie Joe Armstrong in rehab, recovering from the trilogy’s making and promotion, but it will.
12 Bob Dylan, “Tempest” (Columbia): Yet another impressive collection of fine writing (“Soon After Midnight”) and a stunning 14-minute example of storytelling in the title track. Is he talking about the Titanic? Of course. Is he also talking about America? Hmm.