Nas once announced to the world that "Hip Hop Is Dead."
Since that proclamation, which served as the title to his 2006 album, the rapper has done nothing but provide evidence to the contrary.
The latest rebuttal is the most convincing: Nas' 11th studio effort, "Life Is Good," isn't just the top hip-hop album of the year -- it's the top album of the year, period.
Life certainly was good for the hip-hop fan in 2012. Nas' stellar affair was just one of numerous fine rap records released this year -- and, boy, did we need them, since so many other genres (including indie-rock and mainstream pop) delivered so little of note.
Hence, my Top 10 list is dominated by hip-hop records, with only a handful of other albums making the cut.
1"Life Is Good," Nas (Def Jam): Forget all the talk about a "return to form." Nas, in my opinion, has never really slipped from greatness during his nearly 20 years in the spotlight. He has, however, produced some standout moments -- and "Life Is Good" certainly qualifies.
The 14-track work is engaging from start (the passionately nostalgic "No Introduction") to finish (the resigned relationship rehash "Bye Baby") and features some of the most compelling storytelling to be found in Nas' epic songbook. He tells his tales with a lyrical flow, slinging rhymes over a highly ambitious musical backdrop that borrows from everything from classical to jazz.
2"R.A.P. Music," Killer Mike (Williams Street): So much rap music sounds routine. "R.A.P. Music" is an entirely different beast. The album is a thrilling reminder of just how much this genre still has to offer.
Killer Mike is absolutely killer on the mic -- a rhyme master of the first order, cut from the same revolutionary cloth as Ice Cube and Chuck D. He's not dealing in hip-hop cliches, but rather in political and social commentary. Plus, he's absolutely unafraid to go against the grain (note the blatant slam against President Barack Obama in "Reagan"); that fearlessness makes "R.A.P. Music" one of the most exciting releases of the year.
3 "good kid, m.A.A.d city," Kendrick Lamar (Interscope): Compton is back in the house -- in a big way. Following in the footsteps of Ice Cube, Eazy-E and other famed rappers from Compton -- and working under the wing of that city's most accomplished native, Dr. Dre -- Lamar is certainly off to an impressive start with his major-label debut.
This Dre-produced outing proves that Lamar is capable of getting the party started, with an intoxicating anthem like "Swimming Pools (Drank)," but it's the promise shown on such beauties as "Poetic Justice" and "Money Trees" that should get people excited about his future.
4"Tempest," Bob Dylan (Columbia): What separates Dylan from Neil Young, Paul Simon and other once-comparable rock icons? The 71-year-old singer-songwriter is still delivering works that greatly add to his musical legacy. "Tempest" is another marvelous "late-era" effort, full of the kind of tangled and triumphant wordplay that has inspired legions of imitators over the decades.
5"Channel Orange," Frank Ocean (Def Jam): It's hard to name another neo-soul album that has offered such an array of sounds and styles. Yet everything on Ocean's debut fits like pieces of a puzzle -- a gloriously experimental and lyrically rich mosaic from arguably the most promising player in the R&B game.
6"Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1," Lupe Fiasco (Atlantic): Fiasco never falters, which is why it's no surprise that "Food & Liquor II" qualifies as a "Great American Rap Album." It's not as enjoyable as his first two offerings, 2006's "Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor" and 2007's "Lupe Fiasco's The Cool," but it's at least as good as his previous outing, 2011's "Lasers." The new disc contains some awkward moments (like "Heart Donor"), but they're outweighed by tracks that rank among the best in the Chicago rapper's songbook.
7"The Only Place," Best Coast (Mexican Summer): The sunny surf-pop duo, consisting of vocalist-guitarist Bethany Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno, showcases greater lyrical depth and a more polished sound on its sophomore effort. The result shines even more brightly than 2010's lo-fi beauty "Crazy for You." There are times when "The Only Place" recalls early Bettie Serveert -- and that's a gargantuan compliment coming from me.
8"Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color," Brother Ali (Rhymesayers): He seemed poised for breakout success in 2007, after Rolling Stone named him an "artist to watch" and he was featured on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and other TV shows. That he's still hardly a household name, even in many hip-hop households, can't be blamed on the quality of his records. "Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color" is another solid outing for Ali, who ranks among the best -- as well as most insightful -- rappers in the field.
9"Wrecking Ball," Bruce Springsteen (Columbia): Don't believe the hype. This is not one of Springsteen's all-time best albums. Some of the tracks are weak, at least by Boss standards, and the songwriting is clumsy at points. Yet, the overall theme is coherent and compelling, serving as a searing indictment of those who steered America to this point of economic insecurity and social unrest. Combine that with a handful of great tunes (notably, the title track and "Rocky Ground"), and "Wrecking Ball" deserves a spot on this list.
10 "Sorry to Bother You," the Coup (Anti-): I'll close my list with the latest from Oakland's own hip-hop heroes. That's not Bay Area bias, but rather well-deserved recognition for a band that mixes politics and funk better than just about any other act in the business. "Sorry to Bother You," the Coup's first full-length release since 2006's "Pick a Bigger Weapon," is full of clever, contagious tunes that will make you dance and think.
Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic.