In 2012, nothing was as popular as being massively boring. Frank Ocean drained the sexiness and excitement out of r&b, to widespread critical acclaim. Lana Del Rey sighed listlessly over string arrangements in a tight dress, like some kind of Kristen Wiig character who stumbled out of the Holodeck and into real life (to mix my references a bit), and sold an indecent number of records. Gotye's "Somebody I Used to Know" was the year's biggest single (number one on radio, digital downloads, and Spotify); it was a song about a bad break up recorded by an Australian in a barn over a spare arrangement on a xylophone . What the hell is wrong with you people?
This year, it seems that an unusual number of the year's most critically-acclaimed records were also incredibly boring. In their boringness, however, there was considerable variation: some were self-indulgent artistry that gave the listener nothing to engage with (Swans), some recycled boring genres from the past a listener might have thought she'd managed to escape (Purity Ring, The xx), while others were simply made by lazy vocalists whose songs blend together into one album-length mumble (Lana Del Rey, Frank Ocean).
That Swans released a record of atmospheric largely instrumental music isn't totally surprising, musically. Chronologically, it's something of a shock, coming more than 30 years after they first emerged onto the music scene. What was surprising was how passionately their work was embraced by the music community at large. It is moody and atmospheric, a dark sea without a single piece of melody for a listener to cling to. Records like this have always existed, or at least they have for the past six or seven decades, from John Cale to Lou Reed, to, er Lou Reed and Metallica. How can people think this is a record of the year, though? Is it just to prove that they have heard of Swans? It's hard to imagine a person actually enjoying this music--appreciating, sure. Although 70 years on from the work of Cale, it's hardly an innovation deserving of the effusive praise that's been heaped on it.
On the other end of the aural spectrum, Purity Ring and xx make essentially recycled "chillout" music. I have never been to a show of either of these artists, but I am interested, if only to see a crowd of hormone addled teenagers and young 20-somethings try to get themselves worked up while listening to music that would be more at home playing softly at a sushi restaurant. Much has been said of Lana Del Rey, and I don't wish to wade into the debate over her authenticity or "indieness," questions which seem to be long settled. I will just say that she has somehow made a career out of sighing moodily over second-rate strings that don't sound too far from coming pre-loaded on a keyboard. Good for her, if not for her listeners.
Still, if there was one record that stands out above the rest in terms of not just boredom, but bitter betrayal and shattered expectations, it is Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, which received glowing reviews and sits near the top of many year-end lists. Ocean was praised rightly and roundly upon its release for his bravery in openly embracing his sexuality in a community that is typically less than accepting of homosexuality.
This does not, however, mean he made a good record. Channel Orange is listless in the extreme. On several tracks, Ocean seems barely to be keeping himself awake behind the microphone. That's when you can actually hear his voice, which is often buried under layers of production. It's hard to tell if this is intentional, or if Ocean is just unable to muster the strength to sing louder than his beats, no matter how much his producers turn them down.
The greatest r&b stars, from Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross, Teddy Pendergrass to Usher, R. Kelly, and even (believe) Justin Bieber have a crackling energy. Marvin Gaye isn't covered in sweat on the cover of his live albums because it was hot at Carnegie Hall--he exploded with emotion on stage, and his voice was always bursting with feeling. Even laid-back songs, like those found on Kelly's album from this year, Write Me Back, are relentlessly moody and funny. All of this is totally absent on Channel Orange. Critics who've found themselves blown away by Ocean might be wise to listen Miguel's lively and irresistibly sexy "Adorn" for a serious compare and contrast.
The closest predecessor for Ocean, however, is former Canadian teen star Drake. He's spent the last three years or so at the top of the charts with a particular kind of laid-back, modern R&B that can mix boasts and introspection, often in the same line. Sound familiar? Effectively, Ocean isn't doing anything that hasn't done very recently and very well. The major difference between the works of the two is that Ocean has been praised as being "revolutionary" for removing anything exciting, danceable, or funny from Drake's work.
One last thing, directed at every commentator that compared Ocean to Prince. On three out of the last five tracks on Orange, Ocean's voice suddenly jumps an octave and the songs begin with melodramatic organ flourishes. In other words, he is basically doing a Prince impression. These are the only tracks where a comparison to Prince makes any sense, as the record is not overflowing with angular guitars, overblown piano interludes, complex internal mythology, or, again, anything approaching the energy of even the worst Prince song ("Diamonds and Pearls," maybe?). Doing a Prince impression does not make you an artist like Prince.
What can we learn from a year like this, where the indie community rallies around the most boring records of the year? A year where lifelessness is life? Is everybody out there depressed about something? Maybe, after everything, it's nothing more than a positive economic indicator. They say that in an economic depression, the people as a mass want diversion and distraction. The worse the depression, the bigger the lines of dancing girls. By that measure, 2012 has seen a complete economic turnaround. Somebody get the guys at Planet Money on this.