Frank Ocean, 'Blond'
The genius of Frank Ocean's intimate second release is its scant emphasis on sexuality. Despite the attention given to Ocean's queerness after his groundbreaking coming out in 2012, when the gifted Grammy winner posted a heartfelt letter to Tumblr revealing his bent sexuality and affection for a special fella, "Blond" positions gayness as inconsequential to overall worth. Take, for instance, a casual mention of "the gay bar you took me to." Understated lyrics related to his sexual fluidity evoke a brazen label defiance that new generations of queer rebels wear like a badge of honor. For that reason alone, the album is important and influential, as self-exploratory revelations draw upon nuanced recollections neatly tucked into serene R&B mid-tempos that enrapture you with their inviting sweetness. Beyond his euphoric soundscapes is Ocean's stream of consciousness, imparting cinematic and transient anecdotes that range from the loss of childhood virtue ("remember how it was: climb trees, Michael Jackson, it all ends here…") to the complicated circumstances that adulthood summons. "Solo" sits atop a bed of organ accompaniment, throwing you into a divine state of hypnosis with the chorus' "inhale, inhale, there's heaven," a reprise that couldn't sound better unless you were hearing it in a hazy dream. "White Ferrari" is another respite. Here, Ocean falls into a quiet daydream, just a lover, their existential talk and an atmospheric blend of guitar and synths. The reverie, a classic among classics, concludes with indie virtuoso James Blake assuring, "We're so OK here; we're doin' fine." On "Pink + White," Beyonce adorns the otherworldly outro with a gentle wind of whispery undertones, suppressing her presence to let Ocean have his moment. As Ocean reflects on scenes from his life throughout one of 2016's greatest and most moving sets – his feelings and playbacks about sex, social media and those unforgettable car rides; the boyfriends, the girlfriends – it's our own we're seeing in the rearview mirror. Grade: A
Lady Gaga, 'Joanne'
Is less always more? On her return to form, Lady Gaga hangs up the meat dress after reaching the epitome of self-parody a couple of years ago, when the icon sold "Artpop" like it was 2014's "Lemonade." You know how that turned out. Shortly thereafter, she reeled it in, which meant losing the beef frock to sing the Super Bowl's National Anthem and actually wearing a pantsuit. It became clear that Gaga's impending post-"Fame Monster" era would be without excess. (Just ask Tony Bennett, who crooned the Great American Songbook with her.) Named after her late aunt, "Joanne" is, sure enough, a songwriter's album. Though the set's songwriting – particularly "Hey Girl," a squandered sisterhood collaboration with Florence Welch – doesn't achieve the same strange intrigue as even her most inane pop scrawls (see: "Swine"), you don't have to look further than punchy lead singles "Perfect Illusion," "A-YO" and the belted heartbreaker "Million Reasons" to know Gaga's back on (a very meatless) track. But who knew she'd recover with this no-frills, Southern-tinged vocal showcase? Obviously, it doesn't hurt that "Grigio Girls" – with its spirited drunk-around-a-campfire vibe – sounds like a grrl-power anthem for a future "Coyote Ugly" remake. Even better is "Angel Down," a poignant Black Lives Matter tribute written in honor of Trayvon Martin. "Where are our leaders?" she painfully pleads, enraged. Flaws and all, "Joanne" is certainly Gaga like we've never heard her before – meaning, it's Mother Monster at her most human. Grade: B+
Bon Iver, '22, A Million'
Bon Iver's latest is a rumination on the uncertainty of life and time and moments and other stuff and things. Beautifully cryptic things. One: a river that knows no bounds, that doesn't "heed a line… or stay behind," a beautiful allegory for perseverance. Another: some unidentified man whose guitar Vernon carries, galvanizing him to "go in." Vernon's fragmented imagery seems to suggest a man at a crossroads. Him? Perhaps. On "22, A Million," he takes the road less traveled, casting his Grammy-winning style of Wisconsin-born folk – heard on his 2006 debut, "For Emma, Forever Ago" and, later, on its self-titled follow-up – into a bold, futuristic discord that progressively deconstructs as it enacts a meticulous structural subversion. The result is hypnotic, as the album opens like something out of an alternate dimension on the sax-kissed "22 (Over S[?][?]n)" and then, on "715 – CR[?][?]KS," he works his sinewy bellow into static distortion that wreaks havoc on the most neo of neo-folk. The turning point of this challenging narrative is "21 M**N WATER," when the clamor is distilled into a soothing cascade of New Age-y synths. The transition into the next track, "8 (Circle)" (imagine an '80s Bonnie Raitt ballad in the year 2040), is perfection. It almost couldn't get better, except it does. The album's coda, "00000 Million," elicits tears for reasons initially unclear, and then it hits you; it's because of this hopeful assertion: "The days have no numbers." Because, too, the moment is meditative, tender and, performed on a creaky piano, rendered beautifully. And because, frankly, Bon Iver's best, most life-affirming work is right in front of you. Grade: A