2012 was, from my perspective, simultaneously a terrible year for music and a great year for music.  Let me explain.

What have been the major trends in popular music this year?  First and foremost, electronica went mainstream in a big way, highlighted by the widespread popularity of Electronic Dance Music (EDM).  Second, the genre of so-called “Alternative R&B,” as defined by Spin and led by singers like Frank Ocean and Miguel, arrived at its moment in the sun.  Third, hip-hop continued its mixtape mania, manufacturing an overabundance of mediocre material (or, perhaps more accurately, music that stylistically doesn’t appeal to me in the least).  And fourth, the internet this year repeatedly exploded the popularity of pop songs by previously unknown artists, transforming them into YouTube-fueled megahits; the prime examples were, in chronological order, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” and PSY’s “Gangnam Style.”  Other artists who surged from obscurity to chart dominance this year on the strength of a single big hit included Fun (“We Are Young”), Of Monsters and Men (“Little Talks”), and the Lumineers (“Ho Hey”).

Noticeably absent from this list of major trends is anything to do with rock music.  I would argue that this has been one of the worst-ever years for mainstream rock music.   Think about it.  What exciting things did mainstream rock bring us in 2012?  For our purposes, let’s set aside, regardless of merit, new albums by musicians whose primes were in the 1990s or earlier.  This encompasses the new records by Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, KISS, Van Halen, Rush, Husker Du’s Bob Mould, Dinosaur Jr., Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Wallflowers.  Even if they’re still putting out good music, these artists are basically representative of the past.

So what’s new in mainstream rock (and yes, that includes anything under the now essentially meaningless umbrella of “alternative rock”)?  On the plus side, Jack White released his first solo album this April, and it’s mostly pretty good; and a few weeks earlier, one of his opening acts, the Alabama Shakes, released a promising debut that combines old-school soul with blues-rock.  But these are bright spots in a bleak overall picture.  2012 gave us a dismayingly bad Killers album, an unappealing Gaslight Anthem album, and an okay-but-forgettable Vaccines album.  For some reason, we were presented with no less than three new Green Day albums, released KISS-style.  The less said about those, the better; the same goes for Muse’s dubstep-prog experiment and the latest volume of Shinedown’s embarrassingly juvenile post-grunge garbage.  And meanwhile, the Americana/folk-rock style has continued to accumulate popularity, with the release of another so-bland-it’s-awful Mumford & Sons album, a poppier imitation from American Idol winner Phillip Phillips, and the self-titled debut from the Lumineers.  (Mumford’s Babel has been certified platinum, while The Lumineers went gold on the strength of platinum-hit single “Ho Hey.”)  Other than the above, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything else that emerged from 2012 mainstream rock, good or bad.  This shortage is reflected in the pages of Billboard, which has filled its empty rock charts with artists who probably don’t belong there (e.g. Fun, Of Monsters and Men, Ed Sheeran), and in the Grammy nominations, which had to reach back into late 2011 to find enough nominees for rock album of the year (selecting last year’s Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay and El Camino by the Black Keys).

So, given all of the above, one could conclude that this was a terrible year for fans of rock music.  But here’s the thing:  This was a great year for rock music; the good stuff just wasn’t popular.  I realize that statement can easily be dismissed as the “hipster” perspective, or at least the opinion of someone who avoids whatever music the masses happen to enjoy.  I hope that you will not dismiss it, and instead will perceive it as simply the perspective of a fan of rock ‘n’ roll music.  And as a fan of rock, I’m acknowledging that most good new rock music today falls under the “indie” umbrella.  I’m admitting that the masses’ musical tastes have shifted away from rock music towards electronic music, hip-hop, and now apparently even R&B.  And therefore I’m saying that in order to find the best rock music released today, you might have to dig a bit, but it’s out there, and a lot of it is exciting.

This is all basically a preamble for my next post, which will feature the 13 albums released in 2012 which I consider great.  I decided back in September to do a year-end “best of 2012” post, but I resolved not to set a fixed number of albums to highlight.  In other words, this was never going to be a “top 10”; if there were only three albums I considered great, I would only write about three.  But I heard more new music this year than in the past – I listened to 44 albums that were released in 2012 over the course of the year – and, of those, I consider 13 to be great, and another 16 to be at least worth a listen and perhaps worth adding to your library.  (Contrast that with 2011, which saw the release of 11 albums that I’ve added to my collection; of those, I would only call 4 or 5 of them great albums.)  I believe that many of these albums serve as evidence that rock ‘n’ roll is still an active, vibrant, and exciting genre in 2012.

“Best Albums of 2012” post coming soon.  In the meantime, as a reward for reading the preceding paragraphs, here’s one of the few great mainstream rock singles of 2012 – “Hold On” by the Alabama Shakes — if you haven’t already heard it.