Review of 2012: Pop

Olympics and Jubilee made it a very good year for some stars, but Sandé topped the podium


Olympic winner

The summer of 2012 was dominated by mega-sized showcases such as Danny Boyle's acclaimed Olympics opening ceremony, the somewhat less celebrated closing ceremony, and the Jubilee concert on the Mall. The real medal winners, though, snuck up quietly on the inside track. Muse were much mocked for the typical grandeur of their official Olympic anthem “Survival”, which sounded like ELO regurgitating the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, but it got them talked about, and set the scene for their magnificent sixth album The 2nd Law.

Breakthrough of the year

If you threw a stone at a television in 2012, the chances are that it would hit Emeli Sandé. The Scottish nu-soul singer emerged from the pack of tipsters' choices and insiders' poll-toppers, and edged ahead of more critically adored newcomers to become the ubiquitous new face of 2012. If there was a sporting awards ceremony, music biz launch party, or talent show final that needed a guest star, you could bet Sandé was all over it like a rash.

Comeback of the year

Grown men – in many cases, quite famous ones – were seen to shed a tear as Dexys made a triumphant and semi-theatrical comeback at Shepherds Bush Empire, performing their entire new album One Day I'm Going to Soar (plus a selection of classics) with passion, pathos and self-aware humour. The only return to run Rowland and co close came from Cincinatti soul-grunge legends Afghan Whigs, whose Alexandra Palace show scorched the skin of all who saw it.

Cringe of the year

What was he thinking? A mile-wide streak of twee, homespun sentimentality has always run through Paul McCartney's work, but you'd still think someone might have had a quiet word when he chose the cringe-inducing title for his latest album, inspired by the sign-offs on old-fashioned love letters: Kisses on the Bottom.

Fan-hating fool of the year

You might argue that attending a Guns N' Roses concert at all counts as misadventure nowadays, but that still doesn't excuse Axl Rose for a UK tour in which most gigs barely started before midnight, by which time many fans had already gone home. He probably thinks this is rock'n'roll. He's an idiot.

Concept of the year

Cleverest record of the year was The War Room EP by Public Service Broadcasting, which wove archive sound clips from Second World War propaganda films and newsreels into their own techno-indie soundscapes to astonishingly moving effect.

Innovation of the year

She didn't invent the concept of crowd-funding, but Dresden Dolls leader Amanda Palmer did better out of it than anyone in 2012, raising $1,192,793 towards the recording of her album Theatre Is Evil.

Video of the year

Having made his commercial breakthrough with the sharp-suited retro soul of The Defamation of Strickland Banks, Plan B's next move was a shock: returning to rap, with a brutal dispatch from the front line of the London riots which was accompanied by a thrillingly cinematic video (itself effectively a trailer for his Ill Manors movie).

Single of the year

Azealia Banks's “212”, a sexually voracious and foul-mouthed piece of electro-rap, was the most addictive track of the year, although Tame Impala's thunderous “Elephant”, Sharon Van Etten's bewitching “Serpents”, Plan B's aforementioned “Ill Manors”, Stooshe's exuberant “Black Heart” and Bat for Lashes' haunting “Laura” all ran it close. Arguably, however, the single of the year was actually a release from 2007. Public Enemy's Shirley Bassey-sampling “Harder Than You Think” became, on the back of Channel 4's Paralympics coverage, the biggest hit of the hip-hop heroes' career.

For valour

Bravery in pop is a diminished commodity, but two acts, in their different ways, displayed courage to shame their peers this year. Soon after the Odd Future collective, of which he is a part, had been accused of homophobia, soul singer Frank Ocean came out as bisexual, and released a quite beautiful album which touched upon his sexuality. Meanwhile, Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot took on the might of Putin's establishment after staging a musical guerrilla protest inside a Moscow cathedral. Despite international uproar, the band were sentenced to two years in a penal colony.

Checking out ...

The premature death of Whitney Houston, in a Beverly Hills bathtub after a cocaine overdose, was as depressing as it was predictable. We also said goodbye to disco queen Donna Summer and soul-blues legend Etta James, Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees and Davey Jones of The Monkees, soul-jazz auteur Terry Callier, Sixties folkie Scott McKenzie, Stax bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, bluegrass banjo-picker Earl Scruggs, Levon Helm of The Band and Bob Welch of Fleetwood Mac. From the world of easy listening and jazz we lost Dave Brubeck, Hal David and Andy Williams. From the noisier end, we lost Jon Lord of Deep Purple and amplification pioneer Jim Marshall. The death that caused the most widespread shock, however, was that of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, who lost his battle with cancer, aged 47. Gone too soon.