At parties, at bars, in the dentist's chair, while partying at bars with dentists -- it's the question a pop music critic hears most frequently.
"What should I be listening to?"
Tied for second: "Have you met Justin Bieber?" and "How tall is he?"
Answers: Yep. Tiny.
But getting back to your first question ...
As the record biz slows down its release schedule over the holidays, we use the lull to highlight "Lost Tracks," recordings that have gone largely overlooked in the past 12 months. It's also our annual excuse to do the thing that all music scribes love to do: babble about what the world should be listening to.
So here are my favorite underloved albums of 2012:
"Poor Moon," by Hiss Golden Messenger
On the fourth Hiss Golden Messenger album, North Carolina songwriter M.C. Taylor sings unflinching country tunes that evoke the still-water depths of James Taylor and Merle Haggard. And that's a relief. Up against the pomp of Mumford & Sons, the sentimentality of the Avett Brothers and the quirk of Father John Misty, Mr. Taylor offers his more successful folk-rock peers a much-needed lesson in restraint.
But there's still plenty of biblical dread coursing through these quiet little songs, and it comes to a rolling boil with "Jesus Shot Me in the Head," Mr. Taylor's testimonial about finding God. "I was getting wrecked in a Motel 6 when he showed up in the back," he croons. Then Mr. Taylor bids farewell to his vices, his sins and his sketchball buddies. What a deliciously complicated take on the intervention of higher powers. To be born again, part of you has to die.
"Is Your Love Big Enough?" by Lianne La Havas
Another question: Is your iPod big enough for yet another British soul singer? With Adele's "21" refusing to unlatch itself from the charts, 2012 brought a terrific new crop of recordings from Jessie Ware, Katy B, Emeli Sande and others.
Twenty-three-year-old Lianne La Havas stood out by singing with delicate dexterity. Her hooks might not be Grammy-grade just yet, but her songs are some of the finest to smudge the line between folk and R&B since Bon Iver, whom Ms. La Havas toured with last year.
"Ice Cold Perm," by 100s
"Cloud rap" -- that new-ish strand of hip-hop defined by the smeared, diaphanous quality of its backing beats -- might as well be a reference to the "cloud" that Wired readers talk about. As more rappers forge their identities online, the genre's regional characteristics turn hazy.
This teenage rap rookie from Berkeley, Calif., is emblematic of the blur. As he aspires to eclipse the cool of West Coast legends Too $hort and Snoop Dogg, you can hear him repurposing the cadences of Southern greats Pimp C and Lil Boosie.
He also has an expert partner in Joe Wax, a young producer whose otherworldly tracks for Cali duo Main Attrakionz have made that group's moniker feel like false advertising. Together, Wax and 100s prove that no matter where it originates, rap music is ultimately about the sparks that fly when a voice grinds up against a beat.
"Kings and Them," by Evian Christ
And now a quick round of applause for Tri Angle Records, the remarkably consistent electronic music label that scours the Internet for nerds making innovative music in the comfort of their bedrooms. This year, the label's big find was Joshua Leary, a 22-year-old Brit who was uploading music to YouTube as Evian Christ while he spent his days studying to become a schoolteacher.
Listening to the guy's eight-track instrumental debut feels like navigating the charred ruins of a hip-hop album, as smoky synth textures curl around an 808 drum machine's indestructible pulse. Mr. Leary says he'd like to produce tracks for rappers in the future, but for now he's given us some spacious, stylish, contemplative music that needn't be clogged with too many words.
"Pacific Standard Time," by Poolside
Does the 21st century need its own lounge music? This Los Angeles duo answers a question that nobody was really asking with 16 brainless, toe-tappy dance tracks. There are juicy synthesizers and cute falsettos, all locked to a mid-tempo grid, plus the most adorable Neil Young cover you could ever hope to hear ("Harvest Moon")
Poolside's only crime is that they've coined a silly genre tag for all this: "daytime disco." Pffft. Even at 3 a.m. in December, these songs still retain all of their color and cool.
"Believe You Me," by OMBRE
This collaboration from electronic musician Helado Negro and ambient vocalist Julianna Barwick is haunted by the ghost of Brazilian tropicalia in all of the best ways -- chords are strummed on nylon-stringed guitars, and vocal melodies are quick to dissolve in reverb. (He sings in Spanish, she sings in vowels.)
Yeah, the whole dreamy-blurry-muffled-indie thing has been done to death, but there's still a lovely dialogue taking place at the heart of this album. Listening for it feels like pressing your ear to a wall, trying to make out conversation in the next room.music