What do the Empire State Building, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Woody Guthrie and druggy Japanese teenagers have in common? Well ... nothing, really. Or rather, there's nothing that they inherently share — no traits, no historical context — that would cause anyone who sees them grouped together in one place to suddenly nod and exclaim, Yes. Of course. That makes sense.
And yet, this past year, the Empire State Building, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Woody Guthrie, druggy Japanese teenagers and a cornucopia of other, wildly divergent people, places and topics all made appearances on LIFE.com. Not only that, but the galleries and posts in which they appeared were so timely, moving or just plain fun to look at that they caught the attention of millions of people across the Web.
(If one didn't know any better, the logical conclusion here would be that people who use the Internet have serious attention-deficit problems, and need constant and varied visual stimuli in order to remain engaged. But we all know that's not the case.)
In this gallery, as 2012 comes to a close, LIFE.com looks back on the year through a lens comprised of 12 utterly distinct posts, from a gallery celebrating an interracial romance in 1960s Virginia to ruminations on a classic photograph of Albert Einstein's office at Princeton, made on the very day that the great man died. What becomes evident the moment one starts looking at the pictures in this gallery, meanwhile, is the truly astonishing variety of stories that appeared in LIFE magazine.
Not all of the photographs in the galleries (or the single-image posts) referenced here ran in the magazine. But every single person, place or thing that appears in this gallery was, at one time or another, in one way or another, covered by the long-lived, influential weekly. Anyone looking at these 12 photos — and, by extension, at the links included in each caption — can immediately sense the unprecedented scope of the magazine's ambitions. As LIFE's founder and publisher, Henry Luce, wrote in 1936, when he outlined his vision and his aim for his new publication, LIFE's mission was at-once grand and breathtakingly straightforward:
To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man's work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed ...
Below (and in the captions to the photos in the gallery above) are links to a dozen features that were especially popular with our readers in 2012; that highlight the mind-boggling diversity of topics that LIFE tackled through the years; and that illustrate and contextualize the past in a manner that — we hope and believe — is unique to LIFE.com.
To see life. To see the world. To see strange things. To see and be amazed. That sounds about right ...