10 Best: Frank Ocean
By: Connor Lenahan
In early 2015 I experimented with a different kind of article – top ten lists for the best songs by Foo Fighters and Maroon 5. It was a fairly fun way to interact with music as you sometimes have to wait years before you get a new album from someone. You might be able to tell where my head is going here.
Top 10 lists can be fun because they allow us to appreciate artists we listen to, argue about placements and omissions, and in some cases get introduced to someone new with their best cuts. Frank Ocean might be releasing an album before 2020, and my heart continues to break more every day that it doesn’t happen. But today, and each Saturday following, let’s take a look at the top ten songs from different artists. This week is Frank Ocean.
10. I Miss You
We immediately start with a cheat here. “I Miss You” isn’t technically a Frank Ocean song, it’s a Beyonce song on her album 4. Ocean wrote it for Queen Bey, but he breaks it out on occasion at his live shows. This video above is one of the higher quality recordings of Ocean trying the song for himself, and it’s amazing. It’s odd that the Beyonce version, while good, doesn’t sound quite right. Ocean’s written voice is unique and strong here, and the vocals sell everything. This is a welcome deep cut.
9. Swim Good
There are few if any mixtapes as strong as Nostalgia, Ultra as a career maker. A collection of originals and covers that made Ocean a star out of the Odd Future limelight and paved the path to Channel Orange. “Swim Good” is the second best original song on this project, and shows off his range in a funky little ear-worm. If this came out now with Ocean as an established artist rather than as brand new the internet would go crazy.
8. Super Rich Kids
Who doesn’t love a good story? “Super Rich Kids” is deeply detailed in excess and tragedy, following a spoiled kid that falls from his mansion’s roof to his demise, bringing his life back to reality quickly. Despite the fact that my mom swears this is a reworking of “Benny and the Jets” it’s still amazing. Plus Earl Sweatshirt gives one of the strongest guest turns on Channel Orange here.
7. American Wedding
You’re not crazy, this is the music to “Hotel California.” In this remix(?) of the Eagles classic, Ocean again shows his talent as a storyteller – creating and dismantling a marriage convincingly in less than 5 minutes. But what’s most impressive here is that I’ve actually forgotten the lyrics to one of the most iconic rock songs of all time because of “American Wedding”. Don Henley sued Ocean for using his music unsurprisingly, but credit where credit is due for being able to rework a legendary track into a separate standalone hit.
6. Wise Man – Live in Paris
Now this gets interesting. Frank wrote a song called “Wise Man” for 2012’s Django Unchained soundtrack, but Quentin Tarantino elected to cut the track. It has made its way online since, but the studio cut is decently good. The live version, a bootleg from a Paris show nonetheless, is a seminal moment of his career. Like many of these songs, Ocean passes the ultimate test of musical talent – can a song stand up if it’s stripped down to its core. Not only does “Wise Man” hold up, but this live version blows away the studio. The raw, unfiltered vocals and physical energy of the performance emanate well – I’ve got goosebumps while writing this just listening to it in the background.
5. Thinkin Bout You
Without a doubt the most popular song Frank Ocean has ever released, “Thinkin Bout You” was also a critical moment for his coming out. The perspective in this song was what tipped off many listeners that something interesting was happening. At first glance you’d think Ocean was singing from a female perspective to her boyfriend, given gendered terms in the song. But with his public coming out, Ocean confirmed the point of view being his. People have rallied around Frank, both because of his bravery in such a monumental announcement and because “Thinkin Bout You” is just awesome. For all the progression it brings, nothing tops that falsetto.
It’s kind of infuriating that this song isn’t a global smash hit, because “Novacane” is basically flawless. This was the first real introduction to Frank Ocean, a generational voice with deft command of rhythm and ear for melody like few others in history. Yet again the storyteller aspect comes into play with a descent into drugs. Can Frank Ocean direct a movie some time soon? This is too good.
3. Sweet Life
I remember being on a summer vacation when “Sweet Life” popped up on Frank’s Tumblr before Channel Orange dropped. I listened to it alone, then with my brothers three times, then another five times by myself. Although not as explicitly beloved as some other songs in Frank’s discography, this is without a doubt the funkiest among them. Pharrell gifted Frank with a beautiful, summery beat that he unleashed his vocal range on. I cannot describe how many times I have tried, and failed, to hit his peak high note near the chorus. This is a song that should be on every June-August playlist for the rest of time.
2. Bad Religion
If you aren’t crying listening to this song you are either a robot or dead inside. The most emotionally raw track of his career and probably the best vocal performance he has ever given. Unrequited love is a tricky thing, and Frank Ocean knows this. He’s been cut deep, and you feel the pain along with him. “I could never make him love me, love me, love me…” Oh great, now I’m crying again.
Yet after all of this, with an argument to be made for most of these songs taking the top spot, we are left with “Pyramids”. This is a razor thin distinction between 1 and 2, but “Pyramids” gets the nod for innovation. “Bad Religion” is heartbreaking and beautiful in a way that no other song as of late has been. But “Pyramids” is an epic tour-de-force that has no real comparison. A ten minute saga that stretches from Cleopatra’s reign in ancient Egypt to modern day Las Vegas with tonal shifts and straight up orchestral switches? The best comparison for this is maybe “Purple Rain” by Prince, which is casually one of the best songs ever recorded. Frank will, god willing, have more “Bad Religion” tracks in his career – although I’m not emotionally prepared for them – but I’m not sure we are getting anything as incredible and unique as “Pyramids” again.