Frank Ocean—Channel Orange
For years, Frank Ocean has only been known to mainstream audiences for his featured performances on various hip-hop tracks, on which his smooth passionate vocals often steal the show. His mix tape Nostalgia, Ultra gave hints of his solo potential to all who listened but even that could never have hinted at the power and genius that Ocean would showcase on his first album, Channel Orange. The record is an emotional tour de force, effectively discussing Ocean’s sexuality without using the topic as a crutch for cultural or social relevance. Rather, the music stimulates a multivalent presentation of the matter, delving into themes of heartbreak in religion with such gentle subtlety and blistering fervor that it’s nearly impossible not to be moved. Each track stands alone as a work of monumental emotional courage and musical daring. However, even if they all had fallen flat, the record still would have succeeded based solely on the succinct and razored beauty of “Bad Religion,” in which Ocean turns a New York City cab into his own personal confessional. Therein he confronts his own isolation, from the object of his affection, his supposed creator, and himself, proving to listeners that the hunger of unrequited love is in no way a simple feeling. When the singer howls at the end of the cut, “To me it’s just a one man cult, cyanide in my Styrofoam cup. I could never make him love me,” he creates a moment of both revolt and submission that is both definitively operatic and achingly, claustrophobically human.
The Mountain Goats—Transcendental Youth
Discussing mental illness in music has a variety of pitfalls, with so many examples crumbling under the weight of the topic or escaping through tunnels of condescending over-simplification. On the Mountain Goats’ latest album, singer-songwriter John Darnielle manages to avoid both of these dangers, instead opting for a lyrical and unflinching collage of people at the end of the end, searching for fulfillment and salvation, defined by a deep and respectful empathy that neither pretends to understand, nor suggests that it attempts to. With “Harlem Roulette,” the Mountain Goats turned out their best song in years, eulogizing a fallen Motown idol, while cunningly interacting with the idea of art’s transcendence of death. The record is certainly not perfect, stumbling upon late-in-the-game unevenness and a track listing whose ordering of songs often trips up the momentum of the piece as a whole, but the moments in which Youth succeeds are so heart-wrenchingly accurate that it would be insane to overlook the record.
If Transcendental Youth manages to find the perfect lyrical niche to discuss mental illness, Passion Pit’s Gossamer distills the perfect sonic balance, building a record around the vibrant surging ups and downs that define manic depression. Leaping between despair and exultance, Passion Pit locates the nexus between extremes that both consumes and eludes so many in the most expansive and mundane ways. The end result may not be the most uplifting, but there is comfort in the breakneck honesty on which the record thrives, even if the music suggests that the comfort cannot be trusted to last.
Godspeed you! Black Emperor—Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
For much of its discography, Godspeed has defined itself as a viscerally political collective. While the group’s first album in almost a decade doesn’t stray from this tendency, it ultimately reframes it, integrating that political consciousness into a larger emotional fabric that lends new meaning to the record’s social commentary. The tracks are each layered and dense, expanding and contracting with startling and moving energy around the spare lyrics, and the sum amounts to a crowning musical statement that illuminates a fusion of cultural and human consciousness that, though it is definitive of the modern world in all its facets, is far too often overlooked in favor of middling discussion of one or the other.
If there is one band that has managed to identify the perfect distillation of the young consciousness in music, it is undoubtedly Beach House, whose beautiful 2011 album Teen Dream traded in a sort of melancholic ecstasy that can hardly be found anywhere else in the modern music scene. Bloom, seemingly against all odds, expands and deepens this mood, with each track moving from divine intimacy to discursive explosion over its length. Bloom amazes not only through its aesthetically overwhelming compositions but through its flawless blending into one, very personal, whole, which never consumes or detracts from its individual parts. Rather, the album functions on a wistful principle of sonic symbiosis, feeding and energizing itself and its listener through its carefully knitted discourses on love, loneliness, and the odd but awesome moment when the two bleed together to enliven the tedium and terror of the past and the aspirations we all hold dear.