1. Frank Ocean
channel ORANGE
[Def Jam]

Frank Ocean grabbed a lot of headlines when he came out to the world via a powerfully-written letter posted on his Tumblr that described falling in love with a man and starting to come to terms with his own sexuality. Appearing a week before the release of channel ORANGE it was easy to scoff at this as a mere publicity stunt and, though promotion certainly affected the statement’s timing, the letter itself was far more than that. Working in a genre that’s long tolerated and ignored homophobia, a man to admit to anything other than staunch heterosexuality was automatically a brave and momentous decision. Beyond that, the letter itself was wonderfully written – both instantly relatable and also intensely personal. It was, like Ocean’s songs, an attempt to tackle almost insurmountably large issues by viewing them through one person’s eyes with total honesty and utter empathy (or in this case, pathos).

But just like Jackie Robinson had to be not just a groundbreaking person but a great ballplayer, for Ocean to succeed required more than just confession – he needed to also deliver incredible music. Fortunately, channel ORANGE is a stunningly ambitious record, an instant classic and perhaps the first album to truly document 21st century America. Proudly displaying neo-soul and R&B influences like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Stevie Wonder, Ocean crafts gorgeous musical worlds, accented with his own chill-inducing falsetto. Sonically, channel ORANGE moves forward by looking backwards, sounding more like a record that a Def Jam artist would sample than release.

The world depicted in channel ORANGE is one full of deeply lonely people exhausting themselves and modern life’s distractions in a desperate search to find another human to help them ease their pain. Whether it’s the unfulfilled 1% in “Super Rich Kids,” the stripper in “Pyramids,” the roadie in “Monks,” or the junkies in “Crack Rock,” Ocean’s characters are prototypically American – restless, unfulfilled and endlessly seeking. The impossible nature of their search is reflected in the unrequited love songs that bookend the album. In “Thinkin’ Bout You,” the singer yearns desperately for a love that seems unattainable, only to get that person in “End/Golden Girl” and find himself still unhappy and wracked with doubt.

“Whoever you are. Wherever you are.. I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike.” Frank Ocean took that simple statement from his coming-out letter and created a musical document of stunning scope, sweetness and humanity around it. In year that’s seen Americans accept gays at the ballot box as well as in their headphones (Orange peaked at #2 on Billboard and earned six Grammy nominations), it appears that a lot of people have taken that idea to heart. channel ORANGE both reflected and shaped the world in 2012 and we’re the richer for it. – John M. Tryneski

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