What were the defining features of 2012 in pop music?
SOMEONE LIKE HER
Adele did something unheard of for a pop star this year: She went away. Granted, she had a good excuse to be out of the limelight — she had a baby in October — but there was something graceful and rare about Adele’s absence. She didn’t tour or release any new music, aside from her James Bond theme for “Skyfall,” and yet she cast a long shadow over this year in pop music. “21,” her sophomore record released early last year, was still 2012’s top-selling album; in retrospect, its intimacy and confessional overtones set the stage for a year dominated by such qualities.
LESS IS MORE
Frank Ocean, whose “Channel Orange” was one of the best albums of the year, led a strong field of sensual and stark R&B records. This was not the year of artifice and Auto-Tune. It was a time for scaled-down productions that trained the spotlight squarely on what R&B singers had to say. There was an incredible amount of space and sprawl in the melodies on records by Miguel (“Kaleidoscope Dream”), Jessie Ware (“Devotion”), and the Weeknd (whose three mixtapes from last year were rereleased together as “Trilogy”). The trend extended to more mainstream stars, too. “Girl on Fire” stripped down Alicia Keys to her essence as a singer, songwriter, and piano player.
HAIL THE MASTERS
The young guns made the headlines, but it was refreshing to behold a crop of albums that captured the masters at the height of their powers. Bob Dylan’s “Tempest” marked a return to the visceral, fire-and-brimstone songwriting he’s beloved for. Neil Young reunited with Crazy Horse for one of the year’s most gonzo rock records, the aptly titled “Psychedelic Pill.” Patti Smith reigned as rock’s high priestess on “Banga.” Dr. John hooked up with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach for “Locked Down,” which harkened to the New Orleans legend’s voodoo roots. Leonard Cohen’s “Old Ideas” was more organic and streamlined than his keyboard-driven releases over the past decade. And reggae icon Jimmy Cliff found a kindred spirit in Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, who produced Cliff’s “Rebirth,” an album that represented exactly that.
ALL GROWN UP
Taylor Swift appears on the cover of “Red,” her fourth album in six years, looking far different from the teenage princess she embodied on her earlier efforts. She’s a young woman now. Swift, who turned 23 this month, made significant strides on “Red,” proving she had graduated from cutesy country-pop to a more mature, fuller sound. Partly produced by Swedish hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback, the album was also Swift’s most strident (and successful) attempt at a full pop crossover. Meanwhile, Justin Bieber tried to shed his twee heartthrob status for a sly R&B sound, not unlike how Justin Timberlake managed his own growing pains. Bieber’s voice had dropped on “Believe,” his latest album, which contained his best song yet, “Boyfriend.”
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Quick: What was the hit song that galvanized 2011? Can’t remember anything besides “Rolling in the Deep”? Chances are 2012 will go down as the year we rediscovered the joy of singalongs that spread far beyond the radio. South Korean rapper Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” a mediocre pop song that spawned a dance craze on par with “Macarena,” reached more than 1 billion views on YouTube. “Somebody That I Used to Know” catapulted its Belgian-Australian singer, Gotye, to superstar status. And Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was inescapable and as sticky as bubble gum on your shoe. The title alone became something of a punch line this year (including my favorite: a recent front-page headline in the Boston Herald about the possibility of Barney Frank running for John Kerry’s Senate seat).
Going into 2012, the hype in pop music was riding on three words: Lana Del Rey. The buildup to her January major-label debut, “Born to Die,” had been swift and unprecedented, from the toast of the indie blogosphere to a maligned performance on “Saturday Night Live.” Del Rey, she of the eternal pout and the film-noir sensuality, was hard to pin down. Was she the “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” a handy description for her vintage-meets-new style, or the fabrication of a team of savvy handlers? Either way, “Born to Die” debuted at No. 2, behind Adele’s “21.” Within a few months, though, the glow had faded, reminding us that sudden fame is fleeting, and in this digital age, when we want everything now, not everyone is ready for a close-up.
Boston artists were all over the place in 2012. Pop duo Karmin popped up on “Saturday Night Live,” “Good Morning America,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” and the cover of Rolling Stone before snagging the artist of the year trophy at the Boston Music Awards. Amanda Palmer’s record-breaking near-$1.2 million Kickstarter haul (essentially indie-rock Powerball) caused enough Internet freakouts to make clear that climate change in the music industry is a very real concern. And Boston lost a diva with the passing of Donna Summer in May; she’ll enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.