Year-end lists in music criticism are often like members of my extended family: put them together and they remember why they hate each other. Online magazine NME, with its bewildering loyalty to a Brit-pop agenda, is the self-aggrandizing snot-of-a-cousin who still thinks MySpace is cool. Rolling Stone is the balding uncle who thinks relevance means waiting out for another Eagles’ album; Spin is the brother who regretted coming the moment he stepped in; Pitchfork is the other brother who shows up late to drink the free alcohol and goad everyone as much as possible. NPR rounds out the family tree as the desperate patriarch hoping to hold his family together, and does so—unwillingly—only by giving everyone else a common enemy.
There are years, however, when the turkey is so universally sublime that it can bring even the twins who haven't talked to each other in years into agreement.
The glorious bloodbath of 2010 gave us all something to unite around—with Kanye West wooing even as he booed princess of country-pop Taylor Swift—but 2012 gives us reason to practice eye-spitting and shin-kicking as means of winning arguments. Maybe it was because Arcade Fire took the year off and Kanye was too busy dicking around with his labelmates, but there was no album this year around which we could all rally.
Fortunately, no one told Frank Ocean that new artists are not supposed to top year-end lists. The singer-songwriter effortlessly crooned his way into the top-five of many of my extended family member's best-of 2012 album lists, but how? This is the guy who wrote a song for Justin Beiber, after all, and is part of that loose coalition of miscreants known as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.
Ocean was able to succeed so easily becasue his debut album “Channel Orange” is simply fantastic.
“Channel Orange” is no pop album. The lines I catch myself singing to myself are smart one-liners (“too many bottles of this wine we can't pronounce”) with little in the way of melodic hooks. His sultry delivery, ranging from a sexy-as-hell growl to an impassioned falsetto, is the centerpiece of the album, more so even than the traces of R&B that groove like back in the day. Although he's beholden to a bygone era of music, he sounds inescapably like the present.
Being the flavor of the month isn't always a good thing, however. Ocean has eclipsed last year's anonymous phenomenon The Weeknd as the new herald of R&B, and rightfully so. Ocean's music has staying power because it's so caught up in his identity, which itself has a compelling story. Shortly before releasing “Channel Orange,” Ocean published an open letter on the internet describing how his first love, at 19-years-old, was a man.
The stories of the characters that Ocean weaves into his songs are compelling enough without this bit of information to make “Channel Orange” a great record. Don't go searching for clues in the pronouns—they're all there, he, she, me, you. To play gender politics would be easy, but Ocean refuses to hit us over the head with it. He writes thoughtful songs with an eye for both specificity (the “glass dick” of “Crack Rock”) and vagueness (“why see the world when you got a beach?”) that emphasizes the inclusiveness of the record. Although deeply personal, Ocean shares all these accounts with the listener, and they become ours as much as his.
The question becomes, then, why didn't this album top every year-end list? If Rolling Stone wants to give Bruce Springsteen the top spot because he's Bruce Springsteen, fine. But for all its Occupy topicality, “Wrecking Ball” will not endure in the same way as “Channel Orange.” Ocean has made an album for the 21st century, thoughtful in the face of Information age superficiality, brave when homophobia still lingers in the music industry, and distinctly, complexly human in the face of 64-characters-or-fewer reductionism. This is the music that speaks to now, and will be the music that speaks to all of time. "I've been thinkin’ ’bout forever,” Ocean sings, and it shows.