1 Frank Ocean
”Whoever you are, wherever you are, I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike.” Frank Ocean wrote that on his Tumblr, right before revealing that he’d once fallen for another man. Of course, his confession generated attention because it was groundbreaking — a hip-hop star of his stature had never admitted to same-sex love. But his words have also become a mantra for a new generation of R&B fans — those who believe in a bigger kind of love, not just the type that requires 1,200-thread-count sheets. Channel Orange feels like the bravest act of vulnerability in recent memory. Whether Ocean is imagining what it’s like to raise a kid with no money (”Making less than minimum wage/Still inside our parents’ homes”) or thinking about the loneliness drug addicts must feel (”Your family stopped inviting you to things/Won’t let you hold their infant”), his empathy runs so deep, it hurts. Even his visionary twist on avant electro, which draws inspiration from ”Bennie and the Jets,” Stevie Wonder, and boom-bap beats, offers a lesson for everyone from indie rockers to hip-hop diehards: We all connect to the same heartfelt music. If that’s not love, what is?
Best track: ”Thinkin’ Bout You”
2. Fiona Apple
The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
What’s it like inside Fiona Apple’s crazy-brilliant head? This thrilling mood-tornado of an album gives us a chance to find out — and it sounds amazing in there. Whether she’s banging on the piano hard enough to chase out the demons or battle-crying with all the fury of a warrior chief, Apple always cranks up the intensity to yellow-alert level. And it’s difficult not to feel the same delirious passion for her songs, which are so intimate, you’ll believe her when she swears her chest is about to burst open like an egg, splattering her heart yolk all over. It’s an apt metaphor for Apple, who has created a work of heartbreaking beauty. You’ll adore it for just as long as it takes you to read that album title: forever.
Best track: ”Anything We Want”
When was the last time indie rock wore its excitement like a badge of honor, safety-pinned to its hoodie sleeve? There’s nothing ironic or detached about this exhilarating blast of Canadian bar-punk. Not the title. Not the explosion of fireworks that opens the album. Not the roaring guitars, which get everything pounding: your heart, your fist, your beer. And certainly not the lyrics, which broadcast the band’s live-for-today, rage-till-tomorrow ethos with such conviction, it’s only a matter of time before they’re tattooed across some dude’s neck: ”Remember saying things like ‘We’ll sleep when we’re dead’/And thinking this feeling was never going to end?” As long as they play basement-club anthems this visceral, we’ll never forget.
Best track: ”The House That Heaven Built”
You want freaky? This R&B charmer can give you that and then some. Whether he’s bragging about his bedroom skills or deep-frying the Zombies’ ”Time of the Season” until it burbles psychedelic soul, he belongs to a weirdo-prophet tradition that stretches back through Maxwell, Marvin Gaye, and other belt notchers who’ve been blessed with a voice so smooth and golden, it can turn even the most explicit slow jams into high art.
Best track: ”Don’t Look Back”
5. Lord Huron
Sometimes this hazy folk-pop feels light enough to drift away like a tumbleweed. But then, that’s the allure of Benjamin Schneider’s campfire lullabies, which were crafted in Los Angeles and sound like they were baked in the desert sunsets there. The songs come on softly, with wind-chime intros and jangly acoustic guitars, and the sweetness of the melodies lingers long after they’re gone. By the end, when he sings about listening to the wind, the music feels almost spiritual, especially when the lonesome harmonies kick in. You could call it heavenly, if it didn’t sound so achingly human.
Best track: ”Time to Run”