Like most people, I listen to music across genres to fit my moods. That's why the annual ritual of boiling my favorite CDs down to an arbitrary number always feels like an act of betrayal. It's inevitable that something essential is overlooked in the rush.
Think of this list as side "A" of a very large mixed tape of music that was important to me in 2012. I could fill another column with CDs not mentioned here only because they were out of my reach at the time.
Fortunately, we live in the Internet age, so this music is only a mouse click away on YouTube and other sites. I wouldn't presume to call this list the best music of 2012 because that would imply I've heard everything.
I'm not a critic. I don't know what's dominating the charts. I only know what grabbed me by the throat or plunged me into a grateful, meditative trance this year.
With "Old Ideas," Leonard Cohen led a cavalcade of grizzled veterans who defied the odds by remaining vital decades into careers that defined the architecture of rock 'n' roll. Include Bob Dylan's "Tempest," Patti Smith's "Banga," Bobby Womack's "The Bravest Man in the Universe" and Neil Young and Crazy Horse's "Psychedelic Pill" and "Americana" on this list.
Until my mid-teens, I listened almost exclusively to soul music. Frank Ocean and the one-man collective known as The Weeknd prove that the music of my youth is finally in the hands of an inventive new vanguard. Mr. Ocean's "Channel Orange" is the CD I played most in 2012. Add Bruno Mars' brilliant "Unorthodox Jukebox" and Cody Chesnutt's "Landing on a Hundred" to a list that evokes memories of summers in West Philly.
A lot of very sublime pop music made the rounds this year. I discovered the Chromatics and Beach House because "Kill for Love" and "Bloom" are irresistible if somewhat chilly artifacts of studio wizardry. I played "A Church that Fits Our Needs" by Lost in the Trees to death and still don't feel I've exhausted its possibilities. There aren't many CDs that cut to the bone like this one.
The spookiest music of the year for me came from that wily old veteran Dr. John and relative newcomer Father John Misty, the former drummer for Fleet Foxes. Father John Misty put together the most surprising CD of the year with "Fear Fun," a haunting jamboree of modern death songs that sound both fresh and as old as time.
With "Locked Down," Dr. John concocted an album that is both swampy and joyous, yet claustrophobic. The CD's producer, the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, scored with his own CD of fuzzy standards, "Keep it Hid."
A lot of folks got more excited about Jack White's "Blunderbuss" than I did. Call me perverse, but I preferred the retro-sounds of the eponymous CD by Allah-Las and "Boys & Girls," the maiden voyage of the Alabama Shakes. You'll swear you're back in 1965 listening to these avatars of the garage rock/psychedelic spirit.
Next to Mr. Ocean's "Channel Orange," I rate A.C. Newman's "Shut Down the Streets" as the year's most perfect CD. Mr. Newman has figured out how to write pop songs that can't be erased from one's consciousness, a trick he learned as one-third of the poppy art-rock group the New Pornographers.
Mr. Newman's frequent collaborator, Kelly Hogan, released "I Like to Keep Myself in Pain," one of the most versatile albums by a female singer this year. It is full of the kind of crystalline vocals that few bother to cultivate anymore.
Two of my all-time favorites returned with exceptionally strong CDs this year. Donald Fagen, one-half of Steely Dan, did it again with "Sunken Condos," a new collection of caustic but shimmering pop songs that sound like outtakes from "Gaucho."
The great Iris DeMent also returned with "Sing the Delta," her strongest collection of songs in more than a decade.
The transcendent Bill Fay has been around forever, but it took "Life is People" to get me to listen to him. It vies with the New Multitude's self-titled CD and the Avett Brothers' "The Carpenter" as my favorite folk CDs of 2012.
The best discoveries of the year for me were Michael Kiwanuka's "Home Again," Sharon Van Etten's "Tramp," the Men's "Open Your Heart" and Grimes' "Visions."
I recommend Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal's "Chamber Music" to anyone, regardless of their musical tastes. Call me a vulgarian for loving Glen Hansard's schmaltzy "Rhythm and Repose" as much as I do.
And Justin Townes Earle killed with the soulful "Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now."tonynorman
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.