IF A person had somehow lived a life lacklustre enough to go without contemporary music in 2012, and wanted to make amends in the final week of the year, one could make a more than fair start with the 21 records that make up EG's best albums of the year. As a crash course in some of the finest sounds released for the year, the list - compiled from the votes of Fairfax Media editors and music contributors - reflects an eclectic, unpredictable 12 months.
The breadth is welcome: the literate, engaging compositions of Melbourne's Oh Mercy, framed by a newly expressive sound on their third album, Deep Heat, sit alongside the transformative hip-hop of Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, which goes back to the future by connecting autobiographical tissue to the sinew of 1990s US-west-coast beats. Meanwhile, the mythic, roots-influenced rock of Bruce Springsteen's American requiem Wrecking Ball is literally tied with the blissfully evocative electro-pop of Canadian prodigy Grimes and her breakthrough album, Visions.
At the peak - by a clear margin, it should be noted - was Channel Orange, the debut studio album from American R&B singer Frank Ocean, previously a hugely promising voice on mix tapes, Odd Future records and singing hooks for Jay-Z and Kanye West. The album was released in July and even now you can get lost in the struggle between the spiritual and the sexual, the melancholic tales of privilege left unchecked, and the idiosyncratic arrangements that took in sombre hip-hop, soulful melodies and studio detritus.
Ocean is a 25-year-old singer-songwriter from Los Angeles via New Orleans, while Kevin Parker, the affable creator of Tame Impala's cavernous remake of retro rock, is a 26-year-old from Perth via the sounds in his head, but on their respective albums, Channel Orange and Lonerism, both grapple with how they relate to the world. The two find something new in terrain long scoured by musicians, even as Parker explores obliteration through his booming soundscapes and Ocean favours confessions alternately playful and despairing.
But youth wasn't alone in exceeding expectations. Mac Rebennack jnr, better known as the New Orleans pianist and songwriter Dr John, answered his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - often a signpost for stagnation and nostalgia tours - by cutting the urgent, sometimes churning Locked Down. Produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, it was influenced by Ethiopian jazz and personal recrimination, and is as crystal clear a statement as Neil Young's epic reunion with Crazy Horse on Psychedelic Pill and the Dirty Three's new seismograph, Towards the
So if the list has both the ragged experience and calm vitality of local denizen Spencer P. Jones' collaboration with old hands and new on a self-titled independent release and the stylised high drama and adolescent torment of Lana Del Rey's big-budget Born to Die, what does it lack?
Naturally, pop acts are underrepresented.
Nearly everyone can name that Carly Rae Jepsen single, hardly anyone can name that Carly Rae Jepsen album. Beyond that, however, alternative rock didn't turn up a new standard-bearer in 2012.
There was no Arcade Fire, no MGMT, no Vampire Weekend - and that was a welcome development. Each of those acts didn't just enjoy strong notices and full houses in previous years, they were bluntly and disproportionately influential, leaving entire waves of lesser acts in their wake.
Six of these 21 artists are Australian, and half of those - Oh Mercy, Spencer P. Jones and the Nothing Butts, and Suzannah Espie - are from Melbourne, providing a fair account of a year when creative energy among the Melbourne band scene turned inwards.
The most exciting thing about EG's albums of 2012 is that it's not purely a retrospective exercise. As well as the records, there's the promise of many of these acts touring in 2013. Bruce Springsteen, with the E Street Band, plays Melbourne in March, while Sarah Blasko, backed by Orchestra Victoria, tours in February. Cat Power, Alabama Shakes and Neil Young are also due. And now there's no excuse not to be familiar with their newest album.
Albums of the year
1. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
2. Dr. John - Locked Down
3. Tame Impala - Lonerism
4. Neil Young - Psychedelic Pill
5. Oh Mercy - Deep Heat
6. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
7. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel …
8. Dirty Three - Toward the Low Sun
9. (tie) Grimes - Visions
9. (tie) Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
11. Lana Del Rey - Born to Die
12. Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
13. Spencer P. Jones and the Nothing Butts - self-titled
14. (tie) Suzannah Espie - Sea of Lights
14. (tie) Redd Kross - Researching the Blues
16. Jack White - Blunderbuss
17. Sarah Blasko - I Awake
18. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light
19. Silversun Pickups - Neck of the Woods
20. (tie) Cat Power - Sun
20. (tie) Moon Duo - Circles
Compiled from the votes of: Guy Blackman, Martin Boulton, Anthony Carew, Andrew Drever, Michael Dwyer, Patrick Emery, Jeff Glorfeld, Chris Johnston, Darren Levin, Craig Mathieson, Mary Mihelakos, Andrew Murfett, Kylie Northover, Jo Roberts, Andrew Watt, Brett Woodward and Bernard Zuel.