Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Brokeback Ocean

Take a gander across the spectrum of music critics, and the runaway frontrunner for Album of the Year is Frank Ocean's Channel Orange. On Metacritic's 2012 scorecard, there's not another album that comes close.

There's a better than 50% chance that you have never heard of Frank Ocean or Channel Orange. It's only the 74th-best-selling album of the year, half the sales of my own pick, Celebration Rock. So, how was someone this far under the radar so universally acclaimed as having released The Best Album Of The Year.

The answer is simple: Brokeback Mountain.

Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" vied for Best Film of 2005 even though hindsight and the decreasing power of its groundbreaking gayness allow reasonable minds to recognize it as a flawed and derivative film. As a Hollywood elevator pitch, it's "An Affair to Remember" meets "Shane" starring Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, and that's pretty much all it is. Plus Randy Quaid, who was batshit nuts.

The nominations and the accolades were more of a nod to the courage it took to make a very standard Hollywood movie out of a taboo(-ish) topic. The movie was courageous, and it was groundbreaking in a way. And it can be debated whether those characteristics alone merit the hype bestowed upon it.

But “Brokeback Mountain” is a movie, and Channel Orange is music, and there is a crucial and ultimate difference between the experience of film and the experience of music. Most normal people (I am not normal) will see most movies only once or twice in their lives. The first encounter with a film is everything, often the only thing.

Music is entirely different. Most normal people who buy an album will listen to that album over, and over, and over. Loving an album is to consistently return to its well of sound, to drink it in again and again.

Frank Ocean's smooth R&B album manages to do something daring, altogether groundbreaking. He manages to craft an album around the fact that the object(s) of his affection are male. And... Ta-Da! Best Album!

Before you go off assuming this is some homophobic rant, I should warn you: I own 2 1/2 Scissor Sisters albums, and I'm not afraid to go quoting enough lines from "Skin Tight" to knock your head akimbo. While I don't consider myself an aficionado of unabashedly gay music, I've never been bothered or uncomfortable with it, either. If it's got a beat, I can dance to it. If it's got some harmonies, I'll sing to it.

But here's the thing about Channel Ocean: it doesn't have much beat, and it doesn't have much harmony. It just meanders along with a slow boring groove and mostly slow boring songs. It sounds a lot like R. Kelly on valium, basically.

The album doesn't suck. "Pyramids" is fairly strong, and "Bad Religion" is an intriguing change of pace   where the organ and percussion arrangement works very well. But as a whole, it plods.  The subject matter matched with the musical genre might well be groundbreaking, but it's not a well worth back to over and over. If that's true, if it's not an album that begs repeated listening, then how supremely good can it really be?

Like "Brokeback Mountain," Channel Orange deserves recognition for Ocean's courage and for crossing a line few if any have been able to cross with quality. But to be the best, mustn't it also be sonically awesome rather than just "decent" + "gay"? Or is pretty decent (gay) R&B enough of an accomplishment?

If so, that's a damning statement about the quality of music in 2012. Decide for yourself. You can stream his album here or here.

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