Critical Watchdog: Handicapping the 2012 “Album of the Year” Lists

With early returns from Mojo, Uncut, and Paste already pouring in, we’re beginning to develop a clear picture of what this year’s Album of the Year race is starting to shape up as, and it’s pretty darn interesting.

Presently, with a #2 showing at Mojo, #5 with Uncut, and a penthouse position with Paste (on top of glowing reviews from all across the spectrum), it’s safe to say that Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE is 2012’s universally accepted favorite. Additionally, there is a good 90% chance it will top Pitchfork‘s tally, and numerous other publications will have it easily in their Top 10, most likely keeping it in their Top 3. Yet Ocean’s victory comes at a price: while channel ORANGE is quite extraordinary and often very gutting, what a lot of critical institutions will “hear” is the backstory, with Ocean’s heartfelt admission of his sexuality being accepted in the hip-hop community taking more ink than the music that inspired his revelation, these two events in tandem marking a watershed moment for a notoriously homophobic genre that will be celebrated for years to come. This being said, keep an eye on write-ups that appear about channel ORANGE, and see if the conversation is more about the album itself or what Ocean’s closet-destroying moment signifies in a cultural context. Critics very much want to be on the right side of history, but is channel ORANGE an achievement for its bold sexual politics or because it’s just a great album?

Let’s be honest: channel ORANGE is a very good album, yet not flawless, and assuredly not a breezy listen by any means: thematically, Ocean’s characters are damaged, broken, bored, and confused, and his music features none of the trappings of modern commercial radio (save the excellent “Benny & the Jets”-aping “Super Rich Kids [ft. Earl Sweatshirt]”, which is a pretty darned flawless pop song). The between-song skits — tape-recorded conversations about struggling families, one-off song scraps that fade away as soon as they appear — give the album the illusion of narrative, but these bits of sonic ephemera succeed more in setting the stark, confessional mood Ocean is going for. It’s a solid album, an undisputed highlight for 2012, but be mindful of the write-ups you see and how, exactly, they treat Ocean’s breakthrough moment both artistically and culturally. The worry is that some publications may “hear” everything but the actual music.

Expect rock publications like Mojo to hail Jack White’s first solo venture as one of the best of the year (Uncut has it coming in very close at #3), as it fits perfectly with rock critics’ “Jack White is the savior of the six-string” narrative. There are inherent problems with the album (which I detailed in my 6/10 review for PopMatters), but these slights will be overlooked by the ruling class of rock outlets as 2012 was a good but not extraordinary year for rock music, and White is an easy standby for kudos in this regard (some would argue too easy). It’s a fair bet to say Rolling Stone will give it Top Five placement.

Grimes has enough love to pop up in more than a few Top 10s, likely garnering a Top 20 finish in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop rankings come January (and an even more outside chance of a Grammy nomination or two in next week’s announcement), as electro-pop lovers are again looking for a savior, and Grimes was one of the better, more mainstream-leaning examples this year. Expect a lot of publications to let the dream pop of Beach House get a lot of Top 10 features, but despite their “best yet” kudos, very few outlets would actually give this poll-topping placement (it’ll get a decent amount of Top Fives but little more), as Beach House won’t do well outside of indie-friendly critical circles.

One of the most fascinating bellwethers of a publication’s critical clout in 2012 will be whether or not they include Swans’ punishing double-disc set The Seer. Aside from being Gira & Co.’s commercial breakthrough (amazingly, their debut sales week was enough to give the decades-old band their first Billboard chart position ever), the critical accolades have come fast and furious. What’s so surprising then? The fact that Paste, Mojo, and Uncut left it out of their rankings. Swans don’t have the same commercial inroads that, say, Neil Young has had with Psychedelic Pill (which you’ll see in a lot of those aforementioned “rock” publications, like Uncut), although a lot of lighter indie publications may stay away given how brutal the record is. It’s been oft-discussed here between the staff at PopMatters, so we’ll see how it shakes out.

Last but not least, Fiona Apple will place solidly, and a late release for Kendrick Lamar could guarantee him some needed kudos. Odd man out? A December release for Big Boi’s new album, which will leave him out of a lot of critical circles but, depending on how it turns out, will get him ranked up with some late-blooming publications, all the way up to Pazz & Jop and back.

So what have we missed dear readers? What records will blow up in the critical countdown, and which ones are the publications going to miss? How will Ocean’s record be judged, and most importantly, will it stand the test of time? Sound off in the comments — we can’t wait to hear.

Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers