Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…
If Apple’s past work suffers from one flaw, it is overproduction. While Extraordinary Machine and When the Pawn… are fine records, they are hampered by unnecessary, over-ambitious frills. On The Idler Wheel…, Apple opts for more spare, primitive production. Apple’s simple yet raucous backing ensemble sounds raw, wild, open, and unfettered — kind like a 50’s Blue Note jazz record, albeit slightly more accessible.
This context gives way for Apple’s nuanced and emotional voice to fully shine, and for her arrangements to resonate more deeply. Yet, her voice would be worthless without her equally extraordinary songwriting. She effortlessly glides from hysteric frustration (“Every Single Night,” ) to pensive melancholy (“Werewolf,” “Valentine”) to innocent and wistful (“Anything We Want”).
Make no mistake — this album takes patience. But, after a six-year hiatus, Fiona Apple has risen seemingly out of nowhere to drop what could very well be the most intricate, and utterly singular pop records of recent memory.
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
On paper, it sounds mundane: unabashedly angsty tales of the fear of getting older or of young love, sung with nasally vocals. The background music is composed of loud, thrashing guitars playing cliché chord progressions used by just about every pop punk band in the universe. But, Celebration Rock is a resounding success and so far, my favorite rock record of 2012.
Over the course of 35-minutes, the guitar/drum duo of Brian King and David Prowse perform with a rare sense of immediacy, as if this is their last chance to say something that matters. Each piece rings like an anthemic rock epic. Yet, they never feel overwhelming or unapproachable. At their core, these are simple songs, yet it’s King’s penchant for poppy bar-room hooky choruses that helps to make them so memorable. Take away King’s abrasive guitar, and songs like ‘Fire’s Highway’ and ‘The Nights of Wine and Roses’ verge on radio friendly.
This record breathes with an unrelenting, youthful energy. It’s utterly unpretentious and un-self-conscious. King isn’t afraid to reflect on the carefree glory days of youth. And when he sings, ‘Remember that night you were already in bed, said ‘fuck it,’ got up to drink with me instead’ on the central hook of “Younger Us,” it doesn’t feel melodramatic, it feels relatable.
Frank Ocean, Channel:Orange
Def Jam, 2012:
If you follow pop music and haven’t been living in a shell for the past three months, you’ve surely heard of Frank Ocean’s ‘coming out’ via the liner notes of this album. In the wake of Ocean’s courageous decision, Channel: Orange garnered an enormous amount of hype surrounding its release.
I’m a believer that the story (including cultural/historical context) behind a work of art can magnify its impact. However, what makes Ocean’s proper debut so stunning is that, notwithstanding this context, it is an astounding, breathtaking record that speaks for itself.
Ocean synthesizes his influences like any other competent and relevant artist, which is to say, he doesn’t merely imitate, he reinvents. The album flows along somewhat like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On — deceptively graceful songs drifting coherently along by the lead of gorgeous melodies and ambitious, lush production. But, unlike What’s Going On’, Ocean’s soulful Gaye/Stevie Wonder-esque falsetto is drenched in hazy layers of oceanic synthesizers and lo-fi, scuzzy drum beats. It creates a dark atmosphere fitting for his vivid tales of disillusioned hedonism (‘Super Rich Kids’), drug addiction (‘Crack Rock’), and unrequited love (‘Bad Religion, ‘Thinkin’ About You’).
Spanning 17-tracks, 55 minutes with cameos from André 3000 and John Mayer, it’s an album of grand scale. Luckily, Ocean is able to match his ambition with some of the most beautiful music you will hear this year — maybe the finest R&B album since D’Angelo’s Voodoo. It’s the kind of album that feels so natural that sometimes, you wish it could go on forever.