Best albums of 2012, No 1: Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Finally, the undisputed champ, the heavyweight hitter of 2012, the best album of the year. Prepare to travel space and time with Frank Ocean

Tyler, the Creator was supposed to be the breakout star of Odd Future. When he released the single Yonkers in February 2011, it brought global attention to his LA rap collective. But it was Frank Ocean, the oldest, most soulful member of the crew, a singer more than a rapper, who made the biggest waves. His debut album Nostalgia, Ultra came out that same year as a mixtape leaked by Ocean himself, frustrated by the slowness of his record company in releasing it. It was a promising start, particularly in its narrative reach – Ocean pulled the strings of his songs' characters with easy artfulness. Swim Good told the tale of a desperate murder-suicide. Novocane was an indie-film love story, all sepia tones and drugged anti-romance. It was startlingly intelligent and new.

Channel Orange, though, far outshone both Nostalgia, Ultra and Ocean's Odd Future colleagues. It's a staggering achievement of rare scope and variety, an album that builds on Nostalgia, Ultra's foundations and brings that vision to completion. It is an album that demands to be received as such, a true long-player in an age of cherry-picked tracks and edited highlights. It insists you listen to it from start to finish, to experience the considered unravelling of its carefully plotted pace. Like Beyoncé's 4 (which contains I Miss You, an Ocean composition), its tracklisting doesn't feel like a commercial exercise – it starts slowly, rather than with an attention-grabbing banger, and takes its time to build in tempo and mood.

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Ocean's producer Malay has spoken about the recording process, revealing that there were barely any leftovers from the sessions, which gives an idea of the precision involved. Its direct inspirations were Pink Floyd, Sly and the Family Stone, Prince and Jimi Hendrix, though it never sounds derivative or retro, but grand, inventive and ambitious. I have played it half to death and still it continues to reveal new details and tricks. The epic Pyramids, the album's midway point, is a 10-minute sprawl that turns ancient Egypt into a strip club, and Cleopatra into a weary pole-dancer. Ocean is a spurned king, a pathetic pimp, and lonely boyfriend. It's an upbeat electro smash and a sleek slow jam. Remarkably, all of these disparate strands sound taut and together. Ocean says he spent weeks working on just the vocal tone of the four "ohs" that open the track.

If it's musically impressive, then its lyrical reach is frequently astonishing. Ocean has honed his cinematic eye for story here, telling complex, visual tales through a variety of narrators. Channel Orange is bookended by a pair of love stories; the beautiful, tentative Thinkin' Bout You and the fond farewell of Forrest Gump, both of which are addressed to a man. This shouldn't be of note in an ideal world, but it is, because this isn't. We are used to an ambiguous "you". That doesn't suit Ocean's vision. "My eyes don't shed tears, but boy they pour, when I'm thinkin' bout you," he croons on the former, while admiring his paramour, "so buff and so strong", on the latter. Bad Religion, the string-soaked pinnacle of his romantic turmoil, sees him crying "I could never make him love me" to a taxi driver who can only offer the inadequate salve of God. It is refreshingly candid. It matters.

There is more here than just a series of well-executed confessionals, however. It's also an album fixed in its time. Ocean takes aim at LA's rich kids, consuming their way through a numb haze of privilege. He is viciously sarcastic (Sweet Life's "Why see the world when you got the beach?") and resignedly glum. Super Rich Kids combines a Less Than Zero tale of dead-eyed excess with an intricate metaphor for the global economy, topped off with a shock death: "Some don't end the way they should/ This silver spoon has fed me good." Critics of rap and R&B often miss the intricate storytelling involved, but this lays it bare, and makes it look easy. Frank Ocean is a forceful songwriter, an original voice, and a man who makes albums that could only be made by him, in an age of kit-build superstars. Channel Orange topped this poll with more than three times as many votes as the record before it. It is a deserved victory.

• What's your No 1 album of the year? Vote in our readers' poll.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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