PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2012

This was a year of new economic realities, as folks tried hard to work and worked hard when they did. It was also the year when diversity became destiny, when the grassroots and small donations held their own against the power brokers and big money. And while microtargeted demographics increasingly told the story, a little bit of idealism was always welcome, as those with something to lose stood up for what they believed in when it counted the most. That’s, obviously enough, a thumbnail sketch of how the 2012 U.S. presidential election shook out, but those lines could also sum up the last 12 months in music. In a year when transcendent, universally galvanizing musical statements may have been hard to find, it was the persistent, unyielding efforts of artists young and old, unsung and celebrated, that somehow added up to returns that were more varied and more robust than you would’ve anticipated, leading to an unexpected landslide of strong results across musical landscape.

What stood out the most in 2012 wasn’t some newfangled innovation, but old-fashioned, grind-it-out work ethic. Indeed, it’s hard to remember any year in recent memory when so many acts churned out not just one, but multiple albums of original music. No one was more prolific on this front than garage-rock dynamo Ty Segall, who released three full-lengths of new material without ever repeating himself — well, except for maybe Robert Pollard, who came up with two solo efforts and three more with a re-formed and reinvigorated Guided by Voices. Not too far behind in terms of productivity and ingenuity were aggro experimentalists Death Grips with two new titles — which may have been one too many for their (former) label — and reclusive indie stalwart Mount Eerie, who came in out of the cold with a sublime set of companion pieces.

And it wasn’t just underground groups who stayed busy, what with legends like Neil Young & Crazy Horse offering up a pair of albums and chart mainstays Green Day with their own trilogy. That’s not to mention that some of the year’s most acclaimed outings were cram-packed with enough material for multiple discs, be it Taylor Swift’s pop crossover or Baroness’ alt-metal epic, which may or may not have been a double album to begin with. Who knows, maybe all this labor might’ve inspired Fiona Apple to come out of hibernation at long last and Kevin Shields to promise that new My Bloody Valentine record two decades in the making before the year is out?

While a lot of work was accomplished through new business models with terms and conditions set by the artists themselves, just how the fruits of their labors would be appreciated and compensated were questions with answers as uncertain as the future of the music industry as we now know it. A prodigious amount of music was being created and distributed outside of normal networks, whether it was self-released on Bandcamp and Soundcloud, or as mixtapes being file-shared online, blurring the difference between piracy and promotion. Not satisfied with your standard one-album-every-two-years release schedule, Death Grips leaked their second album of 2012 in October with great relish, at the expense of a major label contract and potential legal repercussions.

Taking a web-enabled DIY business plan to new extremes, Amanda Palmer broke the Kickstarter bank by crowdsourcing nearly $1.2 million to record an album and tour behind it, though her good fortune came with its own consequences when controversy arose over whether she should remunerate fans offering to perform with her on stage. As Palmer went from being a worker bee to essentially a small business owner in an industry where the new economy has been gaining fast on an old, out-of-date system, the line between cold, hard commercial transactions and touchy-feely participatory culture had to be negotiated on the fly, with the guest players ultimately getting paid.

Yet as business-as-usual has become anything but, the new musical ecosystem has figured out its own ways to self-regulate: That’s how NPR summer intern Emily White unsuspectingly became the year-in-music’s biggest villain, boasting about accumulating a library of 11,000 songs while buying a mere 15 CDs of her own, only to be given an old-school music economics lesson by B-school lecturer David Lowery (yeah, of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker fame). As the task of monetizing the value of music has grown more difficult and confusing with evolving modes of delivery, from CDs to MP3s to Spotify streams to rips, so too have the relationships between artists and audiences become more complicated as the distinctions between economic exchange and fan experience get fuzzier and fuzzier.

More than most lines of work, though, music is a vocation in which determining the value and significance of one’s output can’t be fully accounted for by a price tag or sales revenue, which 2012’s most gripping music-related personal interest stories proved as those with everything at stake still took strong personal stands with broad social and political ramifications. Revealing that his first love was another man in a much-circulated blog post that went online in advance of releasing Channel Orange, Frank Ocean made himself vulnerable to a musical community often criticized for its homophobia, a poignant act of courage which was reciprocated with widespread support and appreciation, along with calls to re-examine the sexual and gender politics within the industry as a whole.

Against Me!’s Tom Gabel underwent a very private transformation on the most public of terms, sharing his transgender identity with the musical world, then getting back on stage fronting the neo-punk combo as Laura Jane Grace shortly thereafter. Members of the Russian feminist-punk collective Pussy Riot literally put their freedom and livelihoods on the line with their vocal protests against the Putin regime, which led to two of their number being sent to work camps to serve out prison terms. While it’s a safe bet that few CNN viewers or HuffPo readers who’ve become acquainted with Pussy Riot have heard any of their songs — much less those of their first-generation forerunners like the Slits or anything riot grrrl — it’s the group’s identification with the culture and politics of punk that has broadcast and helped to amplify its message worldwide.

While not everyone was taking such strong, explicit stances, a sense of commitment to craft and the elbow grease it takes to perfect it seemed stronger than ever this year. Those qualities are the real equalizers here, the reasons why, say, veteran under-the-radar songwriter Will Johnson and prog perfectionists Anathema placed more prominently on our specialty lists than the usual suspects like Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear or buzzy sophomore acts such as the xx or Sleigh Bells. So maybe there wasn’t as high a peak in 2012 as other years, but there was certainly quality and quantity, depth and breadth to the year’s offerings, as our multitude of lists suggests. What we collectively chose as the best music of the year spoke to a great amount of diversity among genres, within genres — and even within the work of individual artists.

Some of the year’s most lauded albums were eccentric introspective performances, but you could be talking about Frank Ocean or Fiona Apple, Grimes or Kendrick Lamar. Is there much of generic difference between David Byrne and St. Vincent’s world music-influenced art-rock collaboration and Debo Band’s indie-minded tribute to Ethiopean-pop? And how would you describe Taylor Swift’s omnivorous pop hybrid Red, as teeny-bopper dance-pop or adult-alternative or something vaguely country? As our wide-ranging coverage of the year in music shows and the music itself proves, what the best and most compelling musical expressions of 2012 have in common is that they are the products of hard work and labors of love. — Arnold Pan

Edited and Produced by Arnold Pan and Sarah Zupko.