10. Cat Power, _Sun_
Clocking in at just under 11 minutes, “Nothin’ But Time” starts simple enough, with just piano and fuzzy static – then there’s some man chants, and Iggy Pop. On paper it’s a hot mess, but the heartfelt coming-of-age mantra – during which all things seem infinite and possible – beautifully builds into a euphoric mind-release that breezes on by. For the musical oxymoron “Ruin,” Chan Marshall’s a world traveler singing over a bouncy drum beat, chiding fussy Americans. The hallucinatory “Manhattan” drops you in the bustle of a big city, where you’re just a speck of broken dreams and memories. On “3, 6, 9” she’s so drunk that her looseness translates to the song’s rhythmic punch. And to your ears. Forever and ever.
9. Frank Ocean, _Channel ORANGE_
Can men who love men make it in the supposed anti-gay realm of hip-hop? Frank Ocean answered that question when he came out via Tumblr and topped the charts with his solo debut, rightfully earning him kudos, a rabid fan base and Grammy nominations. And it’s not just hype. _Channel ORANGE_ renders his poeticism – about sex, drugs, love and longing – into progressive hip-art beats. The music, though, is only the half of it: Frank’s voice rolls over your sound holes like the “buttercream silk shirt” he sings about on “Lost,” an acid trip that will have you trying to find your way out. This is the gem, though, that’ll go down in the books: “Bad Religion,” so painfully pointed it hurts.
8. Ke$ha, _Warrior_
Well, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Ke$ha was destined to fall off the pop pantheon, but somehow she hoisted her drunk ass up and came back a _Warrior_. Her follow-up to the one-note _Animal_, first of all, makes her likable: There’s not just debauchery; there’s actual love, feelings and all that stuff that real singers sing about. Stripped of gimmicky studio tricks, the album takes an organic approach that pays off on “Only Wanna Dance With You” and “Love into the Light,” a Ke$ha song disguising itself as an ’80s hit. There’s still talk of excessive drinking, but it’s nice to know that Ke$ha’s only working organ isn’t a booze-beaten liver. There’s a beating heart in there, too.
7. Kathleen Edwards, _Voyageur_
The feelings on alt-rocker Kathleen Edwards’ open-diary disc are so raw and exposed that every listen sounds like her heart’s bleeding out. Recorded after the initial breakdown and the eventual breakup of her marriage, _Voyageur_ is the bad, the worse and the ugly. It’s the seemingly happy wedding (exposed on “Pink Champagne”), the devastating fallout (“House Full of Empty Rooms” cuts deep) and the healing process (aka finding a replacement, who just so happens to be new beau/_Voyageur_ producer Bon Iver) – reflections written with more emotional honesty than an Adele song. I mean, who knocks their own wedding day? That alone makes this the breakup album of the year.
6. Taylor Swift, _Red_
Taylor Swift ain’t fooling anyone by throwing in the tiniest bits of banjo and mandolin; she’s about as “country” as Honey Boo Boo is classy. _Red_ further removes her from the singing-about-Tim-McGraw-in-a-pickup-truck teen years and transforms the 23-year-old into a pop star who means business: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is so bubblegum that she makes Britney sound like Doublemint. Her fourth album – about boys; what else? – is a surprising sound evolution for T-Swift, who gets in touch with her inner U2 and disco-dance diva. Even her love stories – the best being “All Too Well,” where even fridge light sounds romantic – aren’t all Romeo-save-me, but complicated observations that don’t end so happily ever after.
5. Regina Spektor, _What We Saw from the Cheap Seats_
A song about a serial killer? A painting? There’s nothing too out-there for Regina Spektor. After diluting her oddball peculiarities on _Far_, she returned with an awesomely schizophrenic palette: a twisted museum observation that’s as beautiful as it is bizarre (“All the Rowboats”), a celebration of the dearly departed and everything else ever (“The Party”) and the adorkable “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas) ” – a song so infectiously happy it could be the all-natural answer to antidepressants. It was the piano-piloted to-be-a-kid-again lament “Firewood,” though, that wrapped me in a blanket and made me happy and sad and all those other emotions you feel when you’re told “there’s still no cure for crying.”
4. Bruce Springsteen, _Wrecking Ball_
No album this year reflected the plight of Americans – a war, a recession, social injustice – better than Bruce Springsteen’s _Wrecking Ball_. “We Take Care of Our Own” blasts the self-righteous and asks, “Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?” The title track, a rip-roaring anthem, goes even further: His anger turns into rage as he dares anyone to mess with him. It’s a triumph – and this political zeitgeist is filled with them: the glorious gospel-touched “Rocky Ground” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” both illustrate hard times and The Boss’ great ear for melody. When he rounds out the set with “We Are Alive,” it’s like he’s handing you another chance to dance under the stars.
3. Santigold, _Master of My Make-Believe_
The songs on Santigold’s defiant diatribe of hard times and hoes – the one where she poses as a drag king on the cover – wormed into my head like a stupid pop hook, but without any of the nagging guilt. “Disparate Youth” is a skittish dance jam about beating the odds – but really, it just makes me want to stand tall on a mountain top and sing it out – and the island-ish “This Isn’t Our Parade” seems like a nod to the gay movement. Themes of unity, self-love and liberation from the world gone awry especially beget the inescapable “The Riot’s Gone,” but all of _Master of My Make-Believe_ is Santigold’s emancipation proclamation.
2. Lana Del Rey, _Born to Die_
YouTube-spawned puffy-lipped Lana Del Rey made a splash with “Video Games” in late 2011 – both the hauntingly hypnotic song and the Macbook-made clip accompanying it – and immediately became one of the most hated, compelling and confusing pop-culture geneses of the year. Her major label debut – a sonically pretty pop-trash masterpiece that, with cohesiveness among its 12 songs, made you feel dangerous and sexy, lonely and sad – deserved a longer ride at the top of the charts. And the seductive songs should have taken it there, from could-be-single “Dark Paradise” to her beautiful tragedy “Summertime Sadness.”
1. Rufus Wainwright, _Out of the Game_
Rufus Wainwright’s power-croon can sing anything – and it has, from baroque to acoustic and Judy Garland. And when he disappoints, how can you fault him? His uncharacteristically snoozy last album, _All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu_, grieved the death of his mother. The troubadour made _Out of the Game_, then, as a throwback to the days when he wouldn’t let an ounce of flamboyancy and grandeur slip through his fingers. With producer Mark Ronson, the two let most of these classic-sounding ol’-timers soar and pomp, even tapping some lady gospel voices for max gayness. The result? Moments of melodic bliss so rich and moving that _Out of the Game_ put Rufus back in it.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.