TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The year in pop music ranged from the big cheerful hit single "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen to the epic-length compositions of Bob Dylan on his album "Tempest." Our rock critic Ken Tucker surveys the year and picks his best music from 2012.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME MAYBE")
CARLY RAE JEPSEN: (Singing) I threw a wish in the well. Don't ask me; I'll never tell. I looked at you as it fell and now you're in my way. I'd trade my soul for a wish, pennies and dimes for a kiss. I wasn't looking for this but now you're in my way. Your stare was holding, ripped jeans skin was showing. Hot night wind was blowing. Where you think you're going, baby? Hey, I just met you and this is crazy but here's my number. So call me, maybe. It's hard to look right at you, baby. But here's my number so call me, maybe.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The one inescapable song of the year was probably that one - Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe." It was everywhere: on the radio, all over the Internet and on TV in a vast array of re-recordings done by fans ranging from ordinary citizens to Jimmy Fallon.
"Call Me Maybe," with a lyric that captures a certain kind of 2012 casual speech, stands in a long tradition of novelty songs that hold up to repeated listenings, as opposed to the novelty song this year that quickly became just irritating, Psy's "Gangnam Style."
My favorite album of the year, however, was the one that barely dented mass consciousness, an album full of songs whose sentiments were rather more vehement than "Call Me Maybe."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEREWOLF")
FIONA APPLE: (Singing) I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead, but I admit that I provided a full moon. And I could liken you to a shark the way you bit off my head but then again, I was waving around a bleeding open wound. But you were such a super guy till the second you get away from me. We're like a wishing well and a bolt of electricity. But we could still support each other. All we've got to do is avoid each other. Nothing wrong when a song ends in minor key. Nothing wrong when a song ends in minor key.
TUCKER: That's Fiona Apple with "Werewolf" from her amazing collection with the long title "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do." With its clattering percussion and Apple's twisty wordplay, this album is a sustained mood piece, a series of intricate word puzzles swaddled in ferocious emotion.
I want to give you a sense of the diversity of good music this year, so I'll name my favorite country album of the year: Dwight Yoakum's "3 Pears," not just a return to form for the honky-tonker, but one of the most consistently pleasurable albums by anyone this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE HOLD OF MY HAND")
DWIGHT YOAKAM: (Singing) Take hold of my hand and I'll do what I can to make everything right, at least for tonight. If you'll just take hold of my hand. Press your lips against mine...
TUCKER: There was a lot of excellent hip-hop music this year, including albums from Killer Mike and Kendrick Lamar. For me, the pop crossover success of Frank Ocean, with his album "Channel Orange," provided some of the most beautifully moody music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD RELIGION")
FRANK OCEAN: (Singing) Taxi driver, be my shrink for the hour. Leave the meter running. It's rush hour so take the streets if you want. Just outrun the demons, could you? He said allahu akbar. I told him don't curse me. Bobo, you need prayer. I guess it couldn't hurt me. If it brings me to my knees it's a bad religion. Oooh, this unrequited love, to me it's nothing but a one-man cult. And cyanide in my Styrofoam cup. I could never make him love me. Never make him love, love, love...
TUCKER: If there's one consistent theme that ran beneath the music this year, it was the survival of the fittest: the endurance or the reemergence of various artists in late or middle age. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bobby Womack, Bonnie Raitt, Loudon Wainwright and many others released strong, vital work this year. But perhaps no return was more welcome than Iris DeMent's whose first album of original material in 16 years, "Sing the Delta," offered many striking, gorgeous moments.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO ON AHEAD AND GO HOME")
IRIS DEMENT: (Singing) Go on ahead and go home. Go on ahead and go home. Boy, you done your best, it's time you took your rest in the shelter (unintelligible). Go on ahead and go home. Go on ahead, go home. The spirits of the dead will meet you up ahead and you won't be alone. Go let your mama see you smile...
TUCKER: So here's my Top 10 Albums list: Fiona Apple's "The Idler Wheel," Dwight Yoakum, "3 Pears," Frank Ocean "Channel Orange," Iris Dement's "Sing the Delta," Killer Mike "R.A.P. Music," Loudon Wainwright's "Older Than My Old Man Now," Bob Dylan "Tempest," John Fullbright's "From the Ground Up," Kendrick Lamar's "Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City," and the collaboration between Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell called "Kin."
I wish you much happy listening.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. His complete list of best albums and singles of the year is on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.