It's Frank Ocean's pop-music world. Everybody else is just swimming in it.
channel ORANGE, the spare and seductive debut album by the California R&B singer who's part of the notorious Odd Future hip-hop collective, hasn't dominated the sales charts the way pop princess Taylor Swift has. Swift sold 1.2 million copies of Red in the first week of its release in October; before the sales bump Ocean will get from nabbing six Grammy nominations last week, he had sold fewer than 500,000 albums.
But sales figures and cultural clout are different things. And in a year when African American and gay and lesbian voters were key in reelecting the president of the United States, Ocean's revelation last summer that he once loved a man caused quite a to-do in and around the casually homophobic hip-hop milieu in which he's a key player. (How key? This is the guy who wrote and sang the hook that "Made In America," the Jay-Z and Kanye West song that gave its name to a Philadelphia music festival, is built around.)
It also set him up as a living, breathing, singing symbol of societal change, potentially burdening his music with art-crushing significance.
As you can see in the Top Ten list below, one of the triumphs of channel ORANGE is that it's not suffocated by that burden in the slightest, and instead soars on its musical merits. It may not be the best album of the year - I prefer Miguel's Kaleidoscope Dream, the other R&B standout in my list. But by a long shot, Ocean's is the one that captures the zeitgeist.
Now, on to the list:
Allo Darlin', Europe (Slumberland). I can't think of a song I loved more this year than "Tallulah," on the shimmery second album by London indie-pop quartet Allo Darlin'. The band, fronted by Australian-born ukulele (and electric guitar) player Elizabeth Morris, is cute, all right. But Morris' melancholy songs are marked by flinty intelligence as well as enrapturing melodies. "Tallulah" shares its name with an album by the great Australian indie band the Go-Betweens, and hearing it makes Morris' heart ache, as she wonders "if I've already heard all the songs that will mean something." Surely, more will come her way. But tunes as precious as those on Europe will always be hard to come by. Download: "Tallulah."
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel . . . (Epic). Fiona Apple has released four albums in her 16 years, and the perennially tortured songwriter has catered less and less to the marketplace in her artistic approach. The Idler Wheel . . ., whose full title runs to 23 words, features Apple pounding on her piano while producer Charley Drayton bangs on the drums. Apple uses her expressive, unvarnished voice as a percussive as well as a melodic and dramatic instrument. It's uneasy listening, to be sure, but hardly unpleasing. "I just want to fee-eee-eeel everything," the 35-year-old singer sings on "Every Single Night." On Idler Wheel . . . she does so at peril to herself, and to our benefit. Download: "Hot Knife."
Gary Clark Jr., Blak and Blu (Warner Bros.). This spot had been reserved for Jack White's Blunderbuss, aiming to give this list a little rock-star juice. But while Blunderbuss has a great title and a handful of bone-quaking riff monsters, it's hardly the ex-White Stripe's most fabulous work. Instead, let's give the love to Gary Clark, the 28-year-old killer guitarist from Austin, Texas, who, after slaying festival crowds - he played twice at Made in America in Philadelphia - made an ambitious major-label debut. Despite a few slips, his album went beyond Clark's jaw-dropping Stevie-Ray-Vaughan-and-Jimi comfort zone into contemporary R&B and hip-hop. And it did it in pursuit of pop-music relevancy, something Clark has a better chance of achieving than any legit bluesman since Robert Cray in the '80s. Download: "Ain't Messin 'Round."
Japandroids, Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl). "Long lit up tonight and still drinking / Don't we have anything to live for?" Japandroids duo Brian King and David Prowse shout that question at the start of the well-titled bromance record of the year. They know the answer: "Well, of course we do." Nihilism never enters the equation for this Canadian duo. But in a year in which demographic outreach has often been reduced to singing out the word "Young!" - see Ke$ha's "Die Young," One Direction's "Live While We're Young" and fun.'s "We Are Young" - the Japandroids are dudes on the cusp of 30 who rock out with anthemic energy all the more urgently because time is fleeting. Or, as they put it in "Younger Us": "Remember saying things like 'We'll sleep when we're dead' / And thinking this feeling was never gonna end?" Download: "The House That Heaven Built."
Jamey Johnson, Living for a Song (Mercury). There are more great singers on this record than you can shake a stick at. Jamey Johnson, the bearded, burly Alabaman who's on the short list of major-label Nashville artists who get away with doing whatever they please, is one of them. He's also a formidable songwriter, but on Living for a Song, he's recorded 16 tunes by Hank Cochrane, the late country tunesmith who mastered the honky-tonk tear-jerker on classics like "I Fall to Pieces" and "Make the World Go Away." Singing along are a murderer's row of partners including Merle Haggard, Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, and Bobby Bare. Sometimes you wish there was one vocalist per song rather than two or three, but the singing is impeccable throughout. Download: "Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me."
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city (Aftermath). Like previous Dr. Dre collaborator Eminem, Kendrick Lamar is a master storyteller with a flair for internal rhyme, a rapper with unassailable skills who's the creative equal in a partnership with one of the most formidable producers in hip-hop history. Lamar - full name, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth - is an almost unfailingly serious man whose confidence in the life-and-death tales he spins is great enough that he hardly bothers to outfit his songs with choruses and hooks. No matter: Thanks to Dre and beatmaking helpmates like the Neptunes, the gripping tracks nod to '70s funk and let Lamar bob and weave as he details his coming up on the streets of Compton. Download: "Swimming Pools (Drank)."
Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA). The second album by Miguel, born Miguel Jontel Pimentel, is a Prince-ly platter that moves with sleek erotic confidence as it reshapes R&B to its own purposes every bit as successfully as Ocean does on channel ORANGE. Kaleidoscope Dream is musically promiscuous as it makes effective psych-rock and soft singer-songwriter moves, quoting the Zombies' "Time of the Season" in "Don't Look Back," and toying with big ideas in "What's the Fun in Forever." Never too slick or off-puttingly earnest, it delivers the hits with the luscious "Adorn" and the devious "Do You . . ." and shows a rare depth of songwriting. Download: "Do You . . ."
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE (Def Jam). Context is everything. It's impossible to separate this album from the fuss kicked up when Ocean, who's closely connected to the provocative, often homophobic hip-hop collective Odd Future, revealed last summer that he had been in love with a man. But what's most exciting about Ocean has nothing to do with that. It's his music. It's not just that he's a superb singer who uses an intimate falsetto to communicate interior conflict, and a skilled producer who, along with artists like Miguel and the Weeknd, is reshaping R&B. The Grammy darling born Christopher Breaux writes complex, character-driven songs far more sophisticated in perspective than your standard-issue pop. Download: "Thinkin Bout You."
Passion Pit, Gossamer (Columbia). As with channel ORANGE, Gossamer's release last summer was accompanied by news about its principal creator, songwriter Michael Angelakos, that changed the perception of his music. In the case of Angelakos, 25, it was that he suffers from bipolar disorder. And that gave context to the tortured lyrics that describe episodes of drunken depression in what, perhaps paradoxically, is one of the brightest-sounding, catchiest electro-pop records this year. Angelakos pairs tales of his tortuous emotional life with music that doesn't bring you down, but lifts you up. Download: "On My Way."
Tame Impala, Lonerism (Modular Recordings). As with Passion Pit, there are a bunch of guys in the Tame Impala band photo, but the music reflects the vision of just one. That would be Kevin Parker, the Australian auteur who worked all by his lonesome on Lonerism, an evocation of late-period Beatles psychedelic rock. It is not about undisciplined jamming but about sunburst melodies and an experimental impulse in which cool-sounding effects are employed in the service of intensely pleasurable tunes. It's the rarest of 55-minute albums that gets better as it goes along, and on top of that, my nearly 90-year-old mother likes it. "Not bad," she said. "They're not screeching all the time!" Download: "Music to Walk Home By."
Honorable Mentions: Neneh Cherry & the Thing, The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound); The Coup, Sorry to Bother You (Anti-); Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge); Bob Dylan, Tempest (Columbia); Grimes, Visions (4AD/Arbitus); Pink, The Truth About Love (RCA); Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball (Columbia); Titus Andronicus, Local Business (XL); Jack White, Blunderbuss (Third Man Records); The Very Best, MTMTMK (Moshi Moshi).