It's Frank Ocean's pop-music world. Everybody else is just swimming in it.
"channel ORANGE," the spare and seductive debut album by the California R&B singer who's part of the notorious Odd Future hip-hop collective, hasn't dominated the sales charts the way pop princess Taylor Swift has. Swift sold 1.2 million copies of "Red" in the first week of its release in October; before the sales bump Ocean will get from nabbing six Grammy nominations last week, he had sold fewer than 500,000 albums.
But sales figures and cultural clout are different things. And in a year when African-American and gay and lesbian voters were key in re-electing the president of the United States, Ocean's revelation last summer that he once loved a man caused quite a to-do in and around the casually homophobic hip-hop milieu in which he's a key player. (How key? This is the guy who wrote and sang the hook that "Made In America," the Jay-Z and Kanye West song that gave its name to a Philadelphia music festival, is built around.)
It also set him up as a living, breathing, singing symbol of societal change, potentially burdening his music with art-crushing significance.
As you can see in the Top 10 list below, one of the triumphs of "channel ORANGE" is that it's not suffocated by that burden in the slightest, and instead soars on its musical merits. It may not be the best album of the year - I prefer Miguel's "Kaleidoscope Dream," the other R&B standout in my list. But by a long shot, Ocean's is the one that captures the zeitgeist.
Now, on to the list:
Allo Darlin', "Europe" (Slumberland). I can't think of a song I loved more this year than "Tallulah," on the shimmery second album by London indie-pop quartet Allo Darlin'. The band, fronted by Australian-born ukulele (and electric guitar) player Elizabeth Morris, is cute, all right. But Morris' melancholy songs are marked by flinty intelligence as well as enrapturing melodies. "Tallulah" shares its name with an album by the great Australian indie band the Go-Betweens, and hearing it makes Morris' heart ache, as she wonders "if I've already heard all the songs that will mean something." Surely, more will come her way. But tunes as precious as those on "Europe" will always be hard to come by. Download: "Tallulah."
Fiona Apple, "The Idler Wheel ..." (Epic). Fiona Apple has released four albums in her 16 years, and the perennially tortured songwriter has catered less and less to the marketplace in her artistic approach. "The Idler Wheel ...," whose full title runs to 23 words, features Apple pounding on her piano while producer Charley Drayton bangs on the drums. Apple uses her expressive, unvarnished voice as a percussive as well as a melodic and dramatic instrument. It's uneasy listening, to be sure, but hardly unpleasing. "I just want to fee-eee-eeel everything," the 35-year-old singer sings on "Every Single Night." On "Idler Wheel ..." she does so at peril to herself, and to our benefit. Download: "Hot Knife."
Gary Clark Jr., "Blak and Blu" (Warner Bros.). This spot had been reserved for Jack White's "Blunderbuss," aiming to give this list a little rock-star juice. But while "Blunderbuss" has a great title and a handful of bone-quaking riff monsters, it's hardly the ex-White Stripe's most fabulous work. Instead, let's give the love to Gary Clark, the 28-year-old killer guitarist from Austin, Texas, who, after slaying festival crowds made an ambitious major-label debut. Despite a few slips, his album went beyond Clark's jaw-dropping Stevie-Ray-Vaughan-and-Jimi comfort zone into contemporary R&B and hip-hop. And it did it in pursuit of pop-music relevancy, something Clark has a better chance of achieving than any legit bluesman since Robert Cray in the '80s. Download: "Ain't Messin 'Round."
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