The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
Looking at my list of favorite albums of the past year illustrates why serious music fans like to follow artists. They’re going to grow, evolve, please us, frustrate us and sometimes surprise us.
1. David Byrne and St. Vincent, Love This Giant - Talking Heads were the greatest band ever. Period. They were an intriguing collective anchored by Kentucky’s own Chris Frantz on the drums. But at the center of it all was quirky frontman David Byrne whose interests guided the Heads through projects like True Stories and his own career through collaborations with Twyla Tharp, Brian Eno and many, many others. When I heard he was teaming with idiosyncratic artist St. Vincent, my immediate thought was, “That’s perfect!” But it was so much more than that. Love This Giant is a constantly renewing journey with two brilliant minds all anchored in brass and as exquisitely crafted as we’d expect.
2. Jack White, Blunderbuss – We have always heard Jack White in the context of bands such as The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, but knew he was the driving force and individual voice behind those acts. His solo debut brought White’s vision into full focus with two same-sex bands backing him on tracks that renewed his strongest influences. A lot of artists play the blues, but few play it like White.
3. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange – Hip hop and R&B are genres full of posturing cool, so it was refreshing when Frank Ocean stepped onto the stage at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and hung himself out there with his performance of Bad Religion, a confession of an unrequited love for another man. The story was intriguing; the album was an engrossing meditation on being a young man trying to navigate the world.
4. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die – One of the most polarizing artists of the year, you either loved her stylized, morosely idealized West Coast mope or you thought she was a complete fake — a previous career under another name fueling that perception. I loved it. At times, she tried a bit too hard. But overall, Born to Die was an astonishingly complete and compelling vision for a young artist I want to hear more from.
5. Mumford & Sons, Babel – Mumford & Sons had a strong following for a genre band when Babel was released this fall. This release just strengthened it, showing the British band’s take on American roots sounds was a genuine exploration of its possibilities. It also affirmed this is a band we will be listening to years from now.
Best single: Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars. The man is a flat-out entertainer, as his Grammy Awards and Saturday Night Live performances showed. Locked out of Heaven, which closes out the year riding high on the charts, is an addictive collection of hooks brilliantly produced to showcase one of the decade’s strongest voices.
Before we get into what Frank Ocean‘s Channel Orange is, let’s say what it isn’t. It is not the gay hip hop/R&B album.
Ocean, born Christopher “Lonny” Breaux, caused a sensation earlier this month publishing a letter saying his first love was another man and then giving a riveting performance of the taxicab confessional song Bad Religion on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (above). While pop music has been open open to gay artists for years, hip hop and R&B have traditionally been less accepting of openly homosexual performers. The letter garnered Ocean a lot of attention, which is what his new album, Channel Orange, deserves, regardless of why you tuned in.
Orange is one of those albums that sounds like the emergence of a brilliant young talent. The 24 year old has been around as a writer for artists such as Justin Bieber and a member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future. Last year he dropped the acclaimed mix tape Nostalgia, Ultra, and Orange is his major label studio debut on Def Jam records, and it is as confident an opening bow as we have heard since Kanye West’s The College Dropout.
It is an album that demands attentive listening, at least the first few times around. That’s where you hear the connective tissue between the songs. It is a stream of money and sex that are the rewards of fame and a complete dissatisfaction with them. This won’t be a surprise to fans of his single, Novacane, released last year. Orange opens with the wistful Thinking Bout You, also previously released, pining for an idyllic love. Then a few tracks later, we are into Super Rich Kids, a longing for genuine emotion in the face of excess. Crack Rock is a great listen in spite of its focus on drugs and violence, leading into Pyramids, which completely defies the conventional belief that young writers should not attempt concept pieces. The 10-minute track makes Cleopatra and her fall a metaphor for everything we have been hearing about for the last half hour with brilliant rhymes and innovative structure. If this album didn’t have Bad Religion, Pyramids would be the masterpiece of Channel Orange.
As great as it was on Fallon, Bad Religion is even better in the context of the album. After expressing an outward and even historical view for the majority of the album, the song focuses inward, quietly. Ocean resists any compulsion to demonstrative drama, instead tending to his emotional wounds in a corner. You sort of want to push stop as the track fades, though there are a few more numbers including the playful Forrest Gump.
And really, as one of the most compelling albums this year, you don’t want to change the channel.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich