Ten Best Albums of 2012

1. Sing the Delta, Iris DeMent – In the harrowing closing track, “Out of the Fire,” DeMent perfectly expresses the need for the pop catharsis and the deeper—salvific—yearning resident in this year’s best pop albums, the sources of which are explored on the previous 10 tracks of this gospel-based folk album.

2. Elysium, Pet Shop Boys – Recalling Proust on “Memory of the Future” (“I keep tasting that sweet madeleine”) exemplifies how the Pets connect both the revelation of gay desire to primordial longing for paradise and a shared cultural heritage to utopian imagination on this sublimely gorgeous Andrew Dawson-produced album.

3. Words and Music by Saint Etienne, Saint Etienne – “I didn’t go to church, I didn’t need to,” the iconic voice of Sarah Cracknell coos on the opening track “Over the Border,” establishing the spiritual longings (and follies) in each singular pop experience assayed on the tracks of this concept album by Britain’s most sophisticated and feelingful pop act since … the Pet Shop Boys (see No. 2).

4. A Joyful Noise, Gossip – Pop ecstasy and anthropology (courtesy of production house Xenomania) fuel side two’s definitive gay myths (“Involved,” “I Won’t Play,” “Love in a Foreign Place”) and side one’s metaphysical (“Perfect World”), existential (“Move in the Right Direction”) and political (“Get a Job”) stompers.

5. Origin of Love, Mika – “I wanted to say I love you like Fleetwood Mac, I wanted to say I love you like church music,” Mika sings, explaining the uncanny sense of liberation from primal shame in the title track of an album unified by theme (variations on love) but diverse in its collaborations and approaches: “Lola” seeks instruction from Jacques Demy’s film siren; “Popular Song” combines hip-hop with Broadway; “Heroes” movingly honors veterans.

6. Prismophonic, Christophe Willem – The undeniable choo-choo chug and creamy smoothness (he should bottle it!) of Richard X’s production on “L’amour me gagne”—the year’s best dance single—provides the basis for the sound of Willem’s album, which helps to advance the musical lexicon—the sound—of masculine delicacy that Richard X revolutionized with Steve Mason’s Boys Outside (2010) and Will Young’s Echoes (2011).

7. Make Me Believe in Hope, Bright Light Bright Light – Frank Ocean’s coming out as a heartbroken bisexual heralded the overrating of his Channel Orange. That album’s solipsistic Prince pastiche appeased the media obsession with black and gay pathology, but it meant ignoring Rod Thomas’ unabashed feeling and hard-won romantic knowledge—brilliantly titling a track “Love, Pt. II”—communicated in the style of 1980s/’90s synth-pop and house.

8. Cruel Summer, G.O.O.D. Music – “It’s hard preaching thew gospel to the slums lately / So I had to put the church on the drums, baby,” Kanye West raps on “The One.” The visionary bonhomie of this omnibus album, rousingly introduced by West and R. Kelly’s righteously vulgar gesture (“To the World”), seemed aimed at the haters who see only the bling-bling and pussy-hounding in this genre of music.

R. Kelly’s Write Me Back.

R. Kelly’s Write Me Back.

9. Write Me Back, R. Kelly – Even within this throwback album’s expert homage to Smokey, Teddy, Barry, Isley, MJ and Marvin, the radical heterosexual core of Kelly’s unappreciated (and idiosyncratic) genius reveals itself as gratuitous faith in the future (Kelly interrupts his smooth seduction on “Share My Love” to break it down: “Populate!”).

10. Some Nights, fun – On the title track, amazingly rousing singer Nate Ruess humbly queries, “Oh Lord! … What do I stand for?” His position is clear: Give form to youthful questing as musical adventure ranging from Afro-beats and -chorale, symphonic strings and auto-tune to locate the desire for transcendence burning in blasphemy (“I will die for my own sins, thanks a lot”).