music / Columns

The Album Of The Year, Every Week: 2012

October 12, 2015 | Posted by David Hayter

It only took two weeks (or two years in real time) to discover that my tastes and opinions have changed, if not dramatically, then certainly substantially. There has been no great 180 and I’m yet to question my own sanity, but, in this weekly trip through time, I’ve already discovered that an album of the year I chose, wrote about and voted for (Beyonce eponymous 2013 release) has slipped down my personal pecking order in just 48 months.

If you are new to this column and are scratching your head, let me bring you up to speed. Each week, I (David Hayter) am going back a year in time to discover my all time favorite records from 2015 to 1960.

I’ll be picking as honestly as I can and discovering whether the opinions I held so vehemently in the past still ring true. Have I changed? Have certain records aged better than others? When push comes to shove, which albums and singles could I not live without?

Fear not, there’s plenty of time to catch up, you can read the 2014 column here and the 2013 edition here.

This week we will be discussing 2012: the year when the rap game found a new icon, R&B evolved from sordid sexualization to adult emotion, psychedelia made full fledged come back and Fiona Apple returned to us, completely out of the blue. Oh and, somewhat bizarrely, a Belgian born Aussie (and his Kiwi pal) with a flair indie inspired art pop released the biggest song of the year. It was a hell of a year.

So let’s not waste time, let’s get to it.

Welcome To 2012

There’s no two ways about it, 2012 was an incredible year for music. The new wave of inventive bedroom and art house inspired pop that had been simmering since 2009 blossomed into a selection of full-realised albums, that not only garnered rave reviews, but made honest to goodness superstars out of thoughtful, authentic artists. You know, the type of stars that the cynics said mainstream music could no longer produce in the post-modern age.

So let’s not hang around, it’s time to review my album of the year list and the critic’s choice:

My List (Published Dec 2012)

1. Channel Orange by Frank Ocean
2. Visions by Grimes
3. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City by Kendrick Lamar
4. Devotion by Jessie Ware
5. Kalidescope Dreams by Miguel
6. TNGHT by TNGHT
7. Ekstasis by Julia Holter
8. The Haunted Man by Bat For Lashes
9. True Romance by Charli XCX
10. Attack On Memory by Cloud Nothings

The Critic’s Choice (Via Metacritic)

1. Ten Freedom Summers by Wadada Leo Smith
2. On The Impossible Past by The Menzingers
3. Channel Orange by Frank Ocean
4. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City by Kendrick Lamar
5. The Idler Wheel by Fiona Apple
6. Accelerando by Vijay Iyer Trio
7. Lonerism by Tame Impala
8. Crown and Treaty by Sweet Billy Pilgrim
9. All We Love We Leave Behind by Converge
10. The Seer by Swans

Rather than discussing the areas of agreement it’s worth giving some love to the albums that slipped off my list. Starting with Lonerism by Tame Impala; a fabulous album from a group that I had pegged as backward looking and unimaginative, but how wrong was I? Their second album was not only full of inventive ideas worthy of recasting the psychedelic scene in a new light, but addictive melodies and sumptuous songwriting too.

Bob Dylan certainly wasn’t modernizing on Tempest, but he was more than happy to remind the world of his talents. It was a little overwrought and overly wordy at times, but the easy instrumentation and pleasingly ambitious of the collection stymied suggestions that his late career revival was running out of steam. Jack White used his twisted imagination to turn a good natured divorce into a scathing revenge fantasy while Japandroids released arguably the best album of their career (fans of Dirty Projectors, Killer Mike, Fiona Apple, Beach House, Grizzly Bear and Death Grips could well argue the same).

Oh and this guy, Kendrick Lamar (you might have heard of him), fulfilled the potential he exhibited on the Section.80 mixtape and was anointed as the rap game’s new messiah. But, unfortunately for K.Dot, my absolute all time favorite LP was released in 2012, so there was only ever going to be one winner this week:

Channel Orange by Frank Ocean

I was sleeping on the floor of a middle-aged Japanese man’s house when Frank Ocean dropped Channel Orange. Relaxing amongst the five lakes at the foot of Mount Fuji I was in no position to actually listen to an album I’d been eagerly anticipating ever since Frank slipped “Novacane” and “Swim Good” onto the Internet in early 2011. In fact, I would travel to Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo before I became aware that Channel Orange even existed.

A brief Wifi connection in Yokohama ushered in a flood of texts from friends congratulating me for backing Ocean to the hilt and telling just how great Channel Orange was. It’s a bizarre scenario that we so seldom encounter in the Internet age; to be so dramatically behind the curve – to have to sit and wait 10 days to hear something the rest of the world is raving about. When I returned home the album had been reviewed and consumed. I wasn’t expected to write my own review (who wants a 10 day old write up?), so my opinion was surplus to requirements as I readied myself to enjoy an album I’d been waiting two years to hear and that the world had already exalted.

Why am I telling you all this? For two reasons: firstly to state that I’ve never really sat back and justified my love for Channel Orange. I didn’t have to think about it whatsoever. I never had to construct an opinion or find an angle; I was free to just sit back and enjoy. Secondly, consider the weight of expectation: I’d been waiting with baited breath for over a year, I’d missed the big surprise release and had to read an array of five star reviews on my laptop. How, after all that, could the record be anything but a let down?

Eventually, in between overdue reviews, features and catch up work, I finally got the chance to sit back and press play – I was blown away within seconds. “Thinkin Bout You”, the Channel Orange’s first fully fledge track, is a masterpiece. “A tornado flew around my room before you came, excuse the mess it made” – The perfectly pitched opening line is rich in drama and imagery, putting the listener directly into Frank’s headspace while leaving plenty of room for allusion and mystery. The emotive hook set, Frank transitions from the resignation of distance to the vulnerable optimism of the moment as the chorus arrives. Frank’s fragile falsetto falters and cracks with a deep wounding ache and the naivety of a man head over heels in love for the first time. This sensation of a guard being let down as rationality recedes is rendered exquisitely with a timeless lyric: “Or do you not think so far ahead, well I’ve been thinking about forever”.

The controversy that greeted Frank coming out of the closet (while undoubtedly important for R&B as a genre) obscures the brilliance and the universality of “Thinkin Bout You”. The simultaneously heart-breaking and soothing power of memory blesses and blights us all. Here’s how I described “Thinkin Bout You” in my end of year list back in 2012.

“Broken hearted strings swell and recede sternly, establishing emotional severity before the subdued percussion stutters mutely in action – conjuring an image of lonesome isolation, a singer wrestling this inner most thoughts as he kicks a can down an endless mental corridor. Finally the hazy, reflective folds of the synths surround the listener, gently washing back and forth to induce an illusion of memory. Without a word being spoken a sense of tragedy, beauty and distance has been implanted in your mind – this will be a serene love song, but told as an entirely one sided idealized recollection.

Frank Ocean lives up to the lofty stature of the arrangement by mixing surreal inviting metaphors (tornados, jet planes) and cloyingly detailed detours (“it usually doesn’t rain in Southern California, much like Arizona“) with frank admissions (“my eyes don’t shed tears, but how they ball when I’m thinkin bout you“) – the effect is utterly disarming. Frank keeps you on your toes as the track branches off like the sinews of his brain and the maze of his memory; thoughts conflate, ideas overlap, but one image remains – the memory of his lover and the feel of his first homosexual relationship. In a drowsy track, the clean and most unmistakable thought is a simple one (“Do you not think that far ahead, Well I’ve been thinking about forever“). Frank’s delicate phrasing and pitch perfect delivery are less a testament to undying commitment, and more the embodiment of complete, instantaneous, obsession. Fleeting majesty, a perfect moment when all sensible thought flies from your mind and the sensuality of the moment takes hold. His lover might have left, there will be no happily ever after (no forever), but that unmistakable rush of sensuality will never perish: it destined to rebound around Frank’s subconscious from now until the end of time. Heavy, poetic stuff, deftly delivered without even the slightest hint of undue grandeur.”

After such an intensely human opening Channel Ocean rejects cohesive sonic or narrative boundaries and takes flight. The sumptuous “Sweet Life” and dead eyed “Super Rich Kids” explore limitations and unreality of wealth. Frank picks away at the fabric of opulence without judgment, contrasting images of unfeeling individualism with angelic vocals. His unconventional choice of subject matter stuffs Channel Orange full of unexpected, detailed and wildly imaginative choruses that you simply wouldn’t hear anywhere else (“my silver spoon has feed me good”, “you’ve had a ground keeper and a house keeper since you were born”). Frank sings with such purity that it’s hard to know exactly how to feel and who empathize with.

 

If tales of rich kids lacking parental guidance and real life experience is strange subject matter for an RnB LP, then “Pyramids” is bat shit insane, plain and simple. This gaudy and overblown centerpiece is a triumph of ambition over self-consciousness. Melting deliciously from one set piece to the next, “Pyramids” sets ancient Egypt against a modern day Strip Club. This should be laughable. Frank’s dour bottom of bourbon glass drowsiness is overwrought, but somehow he wrings out a sense of nobility and unspoken silent sacrifice as he details the drudgery of stripping down and being fucked by an array of anonymous patrons (including Ocean himself, who switches to the first person perspective). By the time John Mayer’s time alteringly trippy guitar solo arrives “Pyramids” feels like an essential statement. It isn’t really, but like Prince before him, Frank can make anything believable in the moment.

Putting time travel to one side, Frank is equally content carving out slices of pop perfection. “Lost” is a riot. Who knew being a drug mule could be this much fun? The track sees Frank and his love cook, collect and run across the world, swept up in a cocaine fuelled erotic haze. If that sounds like too much of a good time, then “Crack Rock” shows the darkside of addiction (Channel Orange’s true leitmotif). Speaking from experience, Frank details a family life coming apart at the seams as young and old alike throw their lives away (“your family stopped inviting you to things, won’t let you hold the infant”).

Naivety and love remain big themes. “Pilot Jones” is sweetness incarnate as Frank, free from subconscious second-guessing, recalls his first heterosexual love. “Forrest Gump” turns Frank’s penchant for metaphor up to 11. He assumes the role of Jenny as obsession recurs. The astute might ask – isn’t it Forrest Gump who’s obsessed with Jenny, not the other way round? Well you’d be right, but here Frank steps wholeheartedly into Jenny’s shoes. Sure he’s moved on and is probably a million miles away, but the thought of a love lost to time and location lingers eternally. “You run my mind, boy, Running on my mind boy” he coos with a wistful blend of fondness or angst.

Channel Orange comes complete with too many ingenious ideas and barmy detours to mention, but we cannot leave the album without discussing “Bad Religion”. “Taxi driver, be my shrink for the hour” sets the stage perfectly for Frank to drift alone with his thoughts and his pain. The beautiful images of optimistic, obsessive love overflowing from Channel Orange are now flipped on their head. The heartwarming joy and fond memories now form a punishment so cruel that they disprove any notion of a loving God. Unrequited, unreturned, unwanted love tortures Ocean as he travels across a city abuzz with life and lights. He finds himself utterly isolated with only his suffering for company; robbed of both reciprocal love and (due to his bisexuality) the ability to share his secrets and begin the healing process (“I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise, I can’t trust no one”).

 

This moment of pleading pain is punishingly beautiful. Hard earned over the course of 13 largely joyous tracks, this supremely sung outpouring of agony ties together a collection of brain bending songs that could have easily drifted off into the stratosphere. “Pink Matter”, a soulful and psychedelic exploration of psyche, is the prefect follow up. Neither lifting or cementing the mood, it sees Frank and Andre 3000 reaching within themselves, not to remove the ache, but to come to terms with it: erecting walls within their grey matter to protect themselves from unabashed addiction.

So why is Channel Orange my favorite album? Perhaps I’m a hopeless romantic or maybe I just recognize the soaring highs and crashing lows Frank describes. In truth, I don’t really know. Sure the music is dynamic, modern and full of carefully crafted surprises, while the songwriting is undeniably both clever and heartfelt, but that’s not the reason. Frank’s vocals are top notch too, let’s not forget; rich in character and full of humanity, but that’s not it either. From the moment I (eventually) heard it, right up until this very day, I’ve shared an unshakeable connection with Channel Orange. You can analyze and over-think until your head explodes, but some albums just get you, and Channel Orange got me good.


Time to talk about the best songs of 2012 ever so briefly. Let’s check out my Top 10:

My List (Published Dec 2012)

1. “I Love It” by Icona Pop
2. “Thinkin Bout You” by Frank Ocean
3. “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
4. “Laura” by Bat For Lashes
5. “Adorn” by Miguel
6. “I’ll Be Alright” by Passion Pit
7. “Pilgrims” by MØ
8. “Skin” by Grimes
9. “Your Love, Your Drums” by AlunaGeorge
10. “The Fall” by Rhye

Looking back I’m very happy with my Top 10 and don’t really feel the need to change it (okay so maybe “The Fall” should be higher, but who really cares?). Looking back over the rest of my Top 200 it’s amazing how the strangest little songs stick with you, “Okay Cupid” by Kitty Pryde (No.23) – a stoned cloud rap brain fart by a knowingly obnoxious teen – still winds up on my playlists. Equally, “What You Here For”, Katy B‘s (No.59) rather tossed off remix of a Mosca classic reminds me of so many good times that it’s outlived some more accomplished songwriting efforts. A reminder that music is an art and not a science perhaps?

So without further ado, let’s reveal the Track Of The Year:

“I Love It” by Icona Pop

To be perfectly honest, at least eight of my top 10 could have occupied this spot, but I decided to stick with this Charli XCX written gem because, to me at least, it sums up so much of what makes pop music great. Here’s what I said at the time:

“Scandi-pop has existed in mellifluous and majestic bubble of its own making for decades now. Regardless of time or trend you can rely on Scandinavia to produce a saccharine gem, a chic po-faced sensation or something barmily salacious that feels contemporary and yet completely at odds with everything going on in the charts at the time. For the all the genres quality (and for all Robyn’s gyration) the scene’s finest pop anthems were always sublimely controlled, they never smacked you in the face with the proverbial wet fish.

That’s where “I Love It” and Icona Pop come in. The track is a sugar rush of sheer stupidity and bratty randomness. It’s an instantaneous onslaught – the musical equivalent of having a half dressed little oik with smeared lip stick, running mascara and disheveled hair (naturally) grab you firmly by the crotch, stick her tongue down your throat and smash you over the head with the nearest bottle. You’re not afforded the luxury of a reaction. Composed thought is entirely extraneous. By the time you’ve managed to regain your senses and have asked the pressing question (“What the fuck?”): you realize that you simply don’t care – that split second was undeniably exhilarating. It was a jolt and you want more. The pounding headache is an irrelevance, you want to snort a line of coke, sweat uncontrollably and dance as spasmodically as humanly possible. Icona Pop bypass intellect and reach for something more primal. This is music for the moment. It smashes your head against the wall with impulsive ecstasy. It screams “I’m a 90s bitch” because…well…just because. It’s stupid. I Love It.”


So next week we revisit 2011 and before I say goodbye it’s time to check in on our big boards, they’re still looking pretty spare, but we are getting there.