Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is worth the hype. First I thought it was too subdued, then I listened some more. I thought “Thinkin Bout You” was the only great single, then I couldn’t get “Sweet Life” out of my head for an entire week. “Novacane” is still perfect, and I still admire Nostalgia, Ultra, but the new album I straight-up love. Buy/download the CD version — bonus track “Golden Girl” is fabulous and gives the album a great sense of closure. Also worth getting: a Neil Young album it took me way too long to figure out.

Flo Rida: Wild Ones  

Poe Boy/Atlantic, 2012 [BUY]

It’s easy to dance to the most ubiquitous retailer of that thing we call pop-rap. However, you can’t really listen to it on its own. Not that what coheres in a club or on the radio can’t translate effectively to a recording, but this record is so consistent it can’t help becoming dull after the first couple songs.

The song you know him from is 2008’s “Low”. Built around a smugly self-assured keyboard loop that’s all the more startlingly original for being mind-numbingly derivative, it’s an ill single. But as a great one-hit wonder, he hasn’t done anything like it since. Though his taste in hooks is in no way diminished, this album’s anthems are cheerful rather than insistent. They butter up the already-soft remnants of what used to be a street genre instead of strengthening universal popform. High-energy, upbeat, and fully innocuous, the lead single “Good Feeling” is basically Avicii’s “Levels” — same Etta James sample. The rest is less distinct.

Another party rock album, take it or leave it. For fans contemplating purchase: better than T-Pain, not up to the Black-Eyed Peas. B

Ab-Soul: Control System

Top Dawg, 2012 [BUY]

As if to counter the partyhop that has become MTV’s new staple, a whole bunch of alt-rap supergroups have suddenly materialized on the charts. The L.A. G-funk adherent Black Hippy is one of the weirder ones, and Ab-Soul is its weirdest member. In the group, he’s the “secret weapon”; on his own record he’s a likable protagonist who makes you feel what he’s feeling without pandering or indulging himself. He also makes a bunch of intellectual references to “chattel”, “pineal glands” etc., without sacrificing street cred.

Essentially, he’s one of those rappers who could pass for a singer-songwriter. But in the tradition of rather good singer-songwriters, his sensitivity complements an acutely discerning, charmingly open-minded intelligence. With the master narrative “Double Standards” attacking people who judge people who cheat on their lovers, and “Empathy” about exactly what it says, he’s less sensitive than he is expressive and analytic. The dissonant, burbling electrobeats provide just the right mixture of calmness and warmth to support his worldview. Whenever his sumptuous keyboards get too slow to carry the music, he hits you with some complex rhymes the like of which his peers just can’t match.

I’d say his biggest achievement is showing off like a nerd while maintaining his compassion, except that a bigger achievement is getting away with using the intolerable “swag”. My favorite moment is when he samples the intro to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Tightrope”, something I’ve been wishing an Anglophonic rapper would do ever since I heard Sido’s “Goldjunge”. A-

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Americana

Reprise, 2012 [BUY]

I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took for me to understand this album. Neil Young covers nineteenth and early-twentieth century folk songs, who could resist? But mainly due to the distorted perspective he makes a point of adopting, the musical rewards are in fact rather thorny and warped. This is also why it’s his twentieth classic album, give or take a few.

Young’s sound just never grows old. Stretching rough, abrasive guitars across a relentlessly thudding rhythm section, Crazy Horse’s pregrunge snarl remains the perfect musical accompaniment to the high-pitched whine Young sings in. What distinguishes this record from your average cover album is that rather than merely selecting and interpreting classic American standards, he disfigures them beyond recognition by changing the melodies and highlighting their disturbing sides, adding a hard anarchic edge to what many think of as just harmless ditties, subverting music that fully pervades our culture and hence suggesting that our culture isn’t as reassuring as this music typically makes it seem. “Clementine” ends with kissing her little sister, “This Land Is Your Land” includes the line asking if this land is really made for you and me, and so on. And then, right when you think he couldn’t get any more gloriously twisted and ironic, he ends the album with “God Save the Queen”.

Some find this record proof of creative decline, but Young says something new about each one of these songs, and they’re great songs in any case. It’s the work of a Canadian who’s always perceived himself as an outsider, yet whose music has become more deeply entrenched in the American canon than that of most American rock stars. A

Purity Ring: Shrines  

4AD, 2012 [BUY]

I’m not sure whether to be heartened that new bands are coming up with new sounds or to be depressed by how increasingly freakish the new sounds are getting. Purity Ring’s sound, in which tunes too precious to exist under normal circumstances are stuck behind a bunch of reverb effects, is a case in point. It’s easy to admire their originality and commitment to the style they’ve invented, except that style is so specific and eccentric it’s also hard to imagine many people having much use for it.

Unlike a lot of albums this superfluously unique, Shrines has the well-plotted coherence of decent pop. It makes great musical sense, with verses and choruses and hooks that all fit together. If you think this is faint praise, you probably haven’t bonded with Madonna and Elton John — articulate songwriting is nothing to be sneezed at. Still, the band has a devastating weakness for tone color. Beyond the occasional wubwubwub, the only compelling noises here are high keyboards that blur everything together. In combination with Megan James’s insignificant whimper, this unnecessarily slows things down, reducing their melodic structures to a yet more contrived display. In any case, they’re way too serious.

Regardless of how carefully worked out the record is, its solemn overall tone results in a wandering indulgence. The music corresponds pretty accurately to lines like “Sea water is flowing from the middle of my thighs/wild buffalo are dancing on cliff tops in the skies”. B-

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: Mature Themes

4AD, 2012 [BUY]

Pink’s image is that of an eccentric Californalien who fools around with home recording and performance art, but if you expect the underachievement that is common among his colleagues, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. He’s partial to what approaches traditional songform. By the standards of most lo-fi dwellers, verses interspersed with choruses that proceed in a logical order stand out.

Though this record is too stylistically inconsistent for me to ever play it casually, that’s no reason the hipstellectual population can’t appreciate a quirky collection of genre exercises. Often veering so far into campy grandeur you think he deserves an orchestra, what distinguishes Pink from all the other grandsons of Robert Pollard are his cute little tunelets, even though half the time he combines them with hazy ambience. “Schnitzel” is clearly pronounced in the boogie of the same name, but usually the psychedelic guitars obscure whatever he’s incanting in his murmured baritone. Whether this self-effacement is just typical postmodern insecurity or some ironic twist about withholding the goodies from his audience, I just wish he’d let other people in on the joke.

Weird that people call this great art — it’s so solemnly silly. Personally, I think he’d make a great singer of children’s music. B

Blood on the Dance Floor: Evolution

Dark Fantasy, 2012 [BUY]

I typically ignore bands this irrelevant on principle, but this one is just so ridiculous I couldn’t help myself, not to mention how shockingly large their Internet fanbase is. Their first claim to fame was uttering the line “Haters make me famous” in an interview; the second is their makeup and clothes, which visually recall a flaccid version of Kiss at the disco. Apparently this is the tamest album they’ve ever made.

Their hammy goth-pop adds preciously whiny melodies to sped-up dance hooks doing jumping jacks all over your face, either of which might be fun if not for the other. Their oh-my-gosh-I’m-so-fabulous vocals would be irritating in any case. Also, their message is genuinely dangerous to today’s youth. For approximately half the album, they put over violently pornographic fantasies that cast themselves as heroic club warriors fucking their way to salvation. After the spoken-word monologue “Rampage of Love”, the other half consists of perversely sententious self-help-book platitudes. This juxtaposition may seem a gruesome disconnect at first, but really those two devices are two sides of the same personality trait — one is rooted in the kinky minds of sexually repressed emo kids, while the other is a belief system said kids feed themselves so they won’t commit suicide. These lyrics make for a fascinatingly insular record, designed to liberate, but that only exacerbates the problems that make people crawl into subcultural bubbles.

The one interesting argument made in their favor is that this music saves lives, which just might be possible. Thoughts of death could easily be interrupted by “HAHAHAHA! Did he just say ‘I love that I have unlimited prosperity, I love that doors are always opening for me, I love that I am powerful, I love that I make a positive contribution’? That’s just too funny.” C

Frank Ocean: Channel Orange

Def Jam, 2012 [BUY]

Underneath all the hype about Ocean coming out as bisexual, Ocean consorting with the two biggest rappers in the biz and sounding classier than both, and Ocean ghostwriting songs for celebrities whom he’s since eclipsed, lies an album remarkable for its focused composition. Painstakingly planning each move far in advance, he comes up with a mature, dissonant musicality whose various subtleties give way to sonic pleasures far deeper than anything his obscenely wealthy contemporaries have ever approached.

By now you’ve probably heard somewhere about Ocean’s deep, soul-searching feelings, and of course he indulges in those a little. But with evocations of super rich kids and coke-white tigers predominating, more than anything else this album is a Hollywood fantasy — slick, creamy music that, regardless of how flawed or pathetic its characters are, makes kids want to be adults and adults want to be kids, conjuring up images of glorious sunsets behind palm trees swaying in the breeze. Glazed with a deceptively seamless luster that ties together the juicy electrobeats and sneaky quietstorm hooks, these songs bask in their own rich imagination, their dark intensity, their sublime beauty, even as they question how real these values truly are. Given the emotional turmoil the thoughtful manic-depressive singing them is apparently going through, they’re probably just what he needs.

Even if you’re suspicious of escapism this successful, which I am most of the time, this album’s sheer aural pleasure renders all questions of authenticity irrelevant. Young girls who want to run away to Los Angeles and become stars should hear him out. So should anybody who listens to music. A+

Lee Brice: Hard 2 Love

Curb, 2012 [BUY]

Back in the good old days, when your grandparents rode dinosaurs to school uphill through the snow, Nashville hacks were different from Hollywood hacks. One was goofy while the other was suave. One was cheerful while the other was cynical. Nowadays, bridged by adult contemporary, the easiest way to tell them apart is by the record label. Even that method is rapidly becoming questionable, as the label Lee Brice is on belongs to Mike Curb, who also discovered the Osmonds.

The lead single is filled with indelible details; “Beer” is honest and entertaining, and overall Brice has got plenty of character. He can be pretty funny when he’s having fun. Nevertheless, he’s one of those rare and perfect examples of genre sellout. Thanks to his thundering drummer, the catchy riffs and power-ballad choruses are all sucked into a musical sledgehammer that makes a show of its sentimentality. This isn’t all his fault — honchos like Curb often inflate many different singers and genres, and it’s unfortunate that these pop-rock touches strip country music of its roots so utterly. But you’d think a guy who likes to party in parking lots would get dragged onto the radio kicking and screaming rather than crooning.

Usually, successful talents overcome the obstacles of sonic overkill by writing accessible songs. All of Brice’s songs are about teen nostalgia. C+

 *   *   *

Report on everybody’s least favorite sensationalists: I have my doubts about Odd Future too, but Young Gunshot, aka Domo Genesis, has made the generic-bad-rapper parody the group has been waiting for: “BBW.” It’s profoundly stupid and wildly funny. I listened to it five times in a row, and I don’t even like this kind of stuff. It’s wilder than Tyler, sillier than Hodgy. Mike G might get me to like them more than I do. The Internet’s Purple Naked Ladies might scare me off them entirely. But of course nothing beats Frank, whom nobody even thinks of as part of the group anymore. Really, who cares as long as you have Channel Orange?

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...