Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (Def Jam)

If Southern California needs an avant-R&B soundtrack, let this be it: Ocean’s hypnotic major-label debut plays like an indie movie, with songs about sun-faded palm trees, cokeheads in Polo sweats, and strippers in Cleopatra makeup. (Think Drive by way of baby-maker-pop maestro Maxwell. )

A transplant from New Orleans, Ocean is less concerned with urban realism than with his own ‘80s-noir fantasy of what the city’s like, and his music captures that vibe perfectly, pulsing with electro-soul grooves, vintage jazz-funk, and Angelino-friendly cameos by John Mayer and Andre 3000.

Orange even echoes other great odes to California glitz (“Super Rich Kids” nods to Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” while “Lost” references Eve and Gwen Stefani’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”). The Hollywood clichés are intentional—there’s a song called “Forrest Gump”—but Ocean’s smart about tweaking them, especially on the love songs, where he’s just as likely to praise a girl’s double-D’s as allude to his crush on a guy.

On the gorgeous “Bad Religion,” he pours his heart out to his taxi driver, crying over a relationship he’s sick of hiding. Considering that he just recently admitted he was once in love with a man, it’s an especially poignant moment. “I could never make him love me,” Ocean broods. But with a confession this heartfelt, it’s hard to believe that’s true. B+

—Melissa Maerz