This means that there is a lot of really good music left off this list (not to mention the undoubtedly good records I never even heard). But I will stand unequivocally behind the 10 albums here. This is what music meant to me in 2012.
1. The dB's - "Falling off the Sky"
I've loved the dB's for 30 years, and I don't think I've missed many if any of the various members post-breakup projects, whether solo, duo, or in other bands. So I wasn't surprised that this reunion record sounds different than the classic dB's albums of the '80s. Different, yes, but every bit as great. Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey are both masters at capturing experiences in powerful, highly memorable pop songs, with grit and truth and oh, yeah, hooks. This is a band of musical craftsmen who are never satisfied with simply being ordinary. Every song on the album is a gem, and this will last in my life the way those first two dB's albums have stayed with me all these years.
2. Meshell Ndegeocello - "Pour Une Ame Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone"
Ndegeocello puts on yet another musical hat and turns out to be brilliant at whatever the name of this one is as she has been at funk, rock 'n' roll, avant jazz, and other mysterious unnamed genres. This time, she pays tribute to the great Nina Simone without ever once sounding even remotely like the original versions of these songs. Capturing the restless spirit of her honoree, the sensuality, the anger, the dreams, Ndegeocello simply re-imagines every song here as if it was something brand new. She's possessed of the urgent need to communicate, and sometimes she realizes it's necessary to bring in friends such as Sinead O'Connor, Toshi Reagon and Cody ChesnuTT to make the songs perfect. In other words, she has no vanity, just a desire to speak through music. The first time I heard this album, I swooned, and I've been in love ever since.
3. Sinead O'Connor - "How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?"
For more than 20 years, I dismissed this woman's music. Oh, sure, I couldn't argue with the Prince cover, and I admired her for going through the shit storm over her SNL appearance. But I never really caught on to her true genius until this album. She's not the only artist out there who's willing to open up her life to absurd levels of honest introspection, but she might just be the most musical. Whether conjuring up the happiest moment of her imaginary life in "4th & Vine" or giving the nastiest kiss-off ever while examining her own faults in "Queen of Denmark," O'Connor sings with astonishing clarity and control throughout this record. One of these days, I'm gonna go back and find out what I've missed all these years, but until then, I'll just keep playing this record (though most of my fave songs can't be put on the radio thanks to the FCC).
4. Van Morrison - "Born to Sing: No Plan B"
First, it should be said I'm inclined to like Van Morrison -- some people out there really, really aren't, and those people can stop reading now. As Van Morrison albums go, this is pretty damn strong, and he's been on a pretty good string these past 12 years. There's a blues song about the distance from Nice to Monte Carlo, and there are songs about economic injustice. There are love songs, and a song about a bigot. There's "Close Enough for Jazz," a spirited set of instrumental improvs that inspired Van to write some fun lyrics. There's "If In Money We Trust," a cut which combines Curtis Mayfield rhythms with John Coltrane harmonies and an especially magical vocal. There's spirituality, and searches for truth. And there's no sign of Van being pissed off at the young folk or the industry ripping him off. Worth many, many repeated listens.
5. Bob Dylan - "Tempest"
On the one hand, it would be better to just let you hear the title track, which was tied with Nicki Minaj's "Starships" as my fave song of the year, but this sampler video is a good way to refute anybody who insists Dylan can't sing. The man uses his voice, he doesn't limit himself by it. This is the most varied and idiosyncratic album of his late career rejuvenation, and every track sounds better with each listen. My two faves are album opener "Duqesne Whistle," which comes close to telling the tale of American music in the first half of the 20th Century, and the title track, which is an astounding update on the folk tradition of songs about the sinking of the Titanic. On and on it goes, verse after verse, detail piling on detail, and of course it includes Leonardo DiCaprio, because we all saw that he was there. The only song I don't think is for the ages is "Roll on John," which, while moving because of course we love John Lennon, is entirely dependent on our prior relationship to the subject. But that's a few minutes out of better than 60, not a bad on-base percentage.
6. Chuck Prophet - "Temple Beautiful"
This guy is so damn good he's easy to take for granted. But it's not just anybody who can turn a phrase with insouciance, yet have it mean so much. And then there's his guitar playing, tight and in the pocket, saying exactly what needs to be said with nothing extra. Of course, he has a band that makes him sound even better. All this, and he co-writes with Alejandro Escovedo on Alejandro's records. It's Chuck Prophet's world, and I'm glad to live in it.
7. Alejandro Escovedo - "Big Station"
"I thought I was the man of steel / It nearly did me in." That's one heck of an opening line, especially given the knowledge that Alejandro nearly died a few years ago. He's always been a deeply honest, introspective writer; on this album, it feels as though life and death are at stake as much as love and loss. Or they're all intertwined somehow. All with a big ol' beat and catchy hooks like he's a rock 'n' roll saint.
8. Aimee Mann - "Charmer"
When I reviewed this album for Blurt, I said it was pretty much the same as all Aimee Mann albums, which means really good. But as I've kept on playing it, I think it might be her second best ever (after "Bachelor No. 2," which probably can never be topped). It is the same as she ever was in terms of melodic genius, lyrical toughness and the ridiculous quality of her hooks. So what makes it better? I don't know if I can put my finger on that -- I just know when I saw her live a couple months back, it was these songs that really got me feeling great. The hardest record to explain, because the joy is all in the craft being so perfectly balanced. (Also, some great videos).
9. Neil Young & Crazy Horse - "Americana"
I admit to harboring deep suspicion when this project was first announced, and I even admit to laughing the first couple times I heard it. But eventually, I realized songs such as "Clementine," which I only knew from hearing Huckleberry Hound sing the chorus, were rich, dark, mysterious, entrancing and as appropriate to Young's approach as anything he's come up with on his own. I've not heard "Psychedelic Pill" enough yet, but "Americana" strikes me as the more perfect distillation of the Crazy Horse aesthetic -- heavy, throbbing, elegant, ecstatic.
10. Dr. John - "Locked Down"
The Black Keys never annoyed me the way the White Stripes did; as two-man bass-less guitar bands go, they could at least command their instruments. But they never did anything I thought worth hearing twice. So, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys winds up producing Dr. John, who has been on a pretty good run of records lately, particularly the 2008 "City That Care Forgot," a blisteringly political rant about all the things you've seen on "Treme," but before "Treme" was ever on TV. Something had to give, and it turns out Auerbach stepped up to the challenge, coming up with some viciously deep guitar riffs, and pushing the good Doctor to create an entirely new, exceptionally dark brand of the voodoo that made his name all those years ago. A record that not only made me feel all sinuous and doped-up, but which seemed to appeal across the board to almost everybody who heard it in my presence.
Editor's note: This list was originally serialized on Facebook.