Music of Quality and Distinction
A distillation of some of the best music of 2012.
Music is like wine: even if you don’t know so much about it, you know what you enjoy; or as Mick Jagger put it: “I’m no schoolboy, but I know what I like.”
Still, it takes a lot of time to sift the good from the bad. That’s what I do 24-7 for my job. Yes, it’s good to get paid for listening to good stuff, but I endure a lot of bad CDs so you won’t have to.
Something like a thousand review albums have come my way since Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die,” and it’s still among of my favourites of the past year or so.
The video is wonderful: Lana is sitting in an angelic white dress on a throne in the Palace of Fontainebleau’s Trinity Chapel, one of the most magnificent rooms in Europe. Two tigers – yawning and presumably wondering if she is worth the effort of eating – flank her. The star has clearly gone to heaven after her unstable relationship with a boyfriend, played by tattooed model Bradley Soileau, shown in a flashback that ends in a car-crash fireball.
It’s still too early to say if Del Rey is the face of the future of music, or just the advertising face of H&M, Jaguar, Mulberry and more. Her hesitant “Saturday Night Live” TV performance suggests that she’s a better model than singer. She may have been surgically-enhanced and buffed up in a record company con trick, but “Born to Die,” a traditional enough piece of MOR rock, still sounds like the requiem for more than her character in the movie. It could be the theme for the beginning of the end of CDs, live shows and record shops as downloads and piracy take over.
Where does music go after this sad end? To a glorious rebirth, perhaps? Frank Ocean came to public attention with his mixtape “Nostalgia, Ultra,” which was one of the most genuinely fresh things I’d heard in ages. Now his debut proper, “Channel Orange,” is glossier, leading to the 10-minute centrepiece “Pyramids.”
He’s not the only one with artistic drive. Taylor Swift’s “Red” is an impressive blend of pop and Joni Mitchell-style maturity, diva ego, and ambition.
Fiona Apple has released an impressive fourth CD. Its title: “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do.” If that seems a mouthful, keep in mind that it’s short compared with the 90-word title of one of her others.
Among other female artists, a few words of recommendation for Regina Spektor (still as kooky as ever on “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats”), and Emeli Sandé (a former medical student who made “Our Version of Events”). It does Sandé a disservice to compare her to Aretha Franklin – that’s a little over the top, though she’s made an assured start.
Here are two more female tips, one obvious, one not so. First is the relatively unknown U.K. singer-songwriter Lettie. Her “Good Fortune, Bad Weather” is a diverse collection of electro-pop. Second, and surprising though this may sound, Pink: aside from her brash commercialism and titles such as “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” she’s an excellent writer of catchy songs on “The Truth About Love.”
Indie rock is finding its way forward after the demise of its patron saints, R.E.M. Waiting in the wings to replace them, we have the U.K.’s Django Django with an eponymous debut; also Spiritualized (“Sweet Heart Sweet Light”); Beach House (“Bloom”); and Grizzly Bear, who released the sublime “Shields.”
The Black Keys have picked up the crown, or should that be battered Stetson, previously worn by the White Stripes — they played one show in Madison Square Garden in March which was a highlight of my musical year, showcasing bluesy material off “El Camino.” Meanwhile, the Stripes star Jack White has been going it alone, with an all-female band and the retro-tinged “Blunderbuss.”
Many critics come to music with an English-language bias. Go onto Twitter and take a look at Top Rock Critics, for example, which follows forty writers, including me. For the most part, all our reviews are about acts from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and Ireland. This is terribly limiting when there’s a whole world of creativity out there.
From Africa, it’s worth seeking out Staff Benda Bilili, a group of street musicians from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose second album “Bouger Le Monde” is an improvement on their first. Zimbabwean band Mokoomba fuses African and Tongan rhythms on “Rising Tide.” Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu has one of the most extraordinary voices in world music, and his latest, “Rrakala,” showcases it well.
From Brazil, the singer-songwriter Céu, or Maria do Céu Whitaker Poças to her family, got a Grammy nomination for her third album “Caravana Sereia Bloom.”
From Italy, another single-named singer-songwriter, Elisa, is continuing to grow up in public. Elisa Toffoli has matured from a teen star into a mother with a voice and a husky sexiness which has never needed naked photoshoots to sell records. She is happy to sing in English, as on the compilations “Heart” and “Steppin’ on Water,” though worth hearing too on “Una Poesia Anche Per Te” and“Luce (Tramonti a Nord Est).” Progressive rockers Verdena are still going too, with the last album, “Wow,” spread over two discs and including the multi-part track “Sorriso in Spiaggia.”
Other veteran stars have made some of the finest music of the last 12 months,
Leonard Cohen brought out the ever-articulate “Old Ideas”; Donald Fagen the tasteful “Sunken Condos”; and Mark Knopfler the virtuoso “Privateering” – all sticking to character. Bob Dylan’s “Tempest” is his best in a while, even with the overdone title track about the Titanic.
I make no apology for including Bruce Springsteen in the list. Yes, he’s obvious, no longer cutting- edge and getting unfashionable.but “Wrecking Ball” still sounds energetically awesome.
Bobby Womack has come back from serious health problems and his “The Bravest Man in the Universe,” with Damon Albarn, shines.
Roy Cooder’s “Election Special” was dashed off, and so was Neil Young’s “Psychedelic Pill,” which came just two months after “Americana.” Tom Jones has moved from being the target of 1960s jokes about the “Prince of Wails” – and knickers thrown by female fans – to Sir Tom, an elder statesman of rock: “Spirit in the Room” is his second straight great release.
I wouldn’t personally join in the chorus of critical approval for Mumford and Sons (undistinguished “hey-nonny-no”), Muse (more overblown progressive rock), or Green Day (spunky punk, this time spread thin over three discs.) I only grudgingly recommend “Ill Manors” by Plan B: it’s full of good bits and is rather wrecked by some naïve political comment. Help the kids, he says, or they will protest again. Hang on, maybe the urban disturbances were just copycat criminality best fixed by definite punishment rather than by hugging hoodies?
We’re emerging from a year that has seen countless 50th anniversaries. As a whole, the Beatles didn’t do it very well – only a few remasters of their lesser works: “Yellow Submarine” and “Magical Mystery Tour.” The Rolling Stones made a whole industry out of their Golden year, with concerts, a new greatest-hits (with the obligatory pair of new tracks), a book, and the “Crossfire Hurricane” documentary. The Beach Boys also toured, released “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” and topped it off with a greatest hits collection and reissues of a lot of 1960s material. Even James Bond got in on the act with “50 Years – 50 Tracks,” a new film, and more.
I was lucky to be one of those to see Led Zeppelin in 2007 (more than a million people applied for the 20,000 tickets at the O2): whether you were there or not, we all at last have “Celebration Day,” a blasting CD and DVD of the show.
The last few months have seen comebacks from the Stone Roses and more, though one of the most dramatic returns, after twenty-seven years, was from “Come On, Eileen” stars Dexys Midnight Runners, now just trading as Dexys. Singer Kevin Rowland told me in an interview that the record’s title “One Day I’m Going to Soar” came to him after a particularly difficult day. It certainly soars.
Similarly Blur’s reunion this year was welcome, with the band’s Hyde Park show at the end of the Olympics a hell of a way to bow out. Blur is releasing that concert as a “ParkLive” DVD, which I’m looking forward to as a souvenir of a wonderful evening, as well as wheeling out “Blur 21,” one of the holiday mega-box sets on offer. Roxy Music also put all its albums into one box. It’s all big stuff, if less expensive than last year, when we got complete recordings from Leonard Cohen, Robert Johnson, Aretha Franklin, the Smiths and Billy Joel. The biggest of the lot were a 76-disc set from Tony Bennett (“The Complete Collection,” $400), a 73-disc Grateful Dead (“Europe `72: The Complete Recordings,” about $800) and Pink Floyd (“The Discovery Box Set,” $180).
Giant box sets of classic albums are still aplenty: U2’s “Achtung Baby”; the Beach Boys “Smile”; Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”; Nirvana’s “Nevermind”; Peter Gabriel’s “So”; Michael Jackson’s “Bad”; Paul Simon’s “Graceland”; Sugar’s “Copper Blue”; “The Woody Guthrie Centennial”; “Loveless” by My Bloody Valentine; “L.A. Woman” by the Doors; and a fortieth-anniversary edition of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.” Can’s “The Lost Tapes” had a few gems, as did Janis Joplin’s “The Pearl Sessions.”
Some of these are simply too much for all but completists. Many have early takes, rehearsals, live cuts, interviews, essays, dance mixes and more. The Floyd boxes include marbles and a scarf, while the biggest U2 box has a pair of Bono’s sunglasses – not exactly essential stuff.
In writing this column, I soon had more than 50 suggestions, but still tweeted asking for ideas. Those I got that back which I liked include Patti Smith’s “Banga” and the Damn Vandals “Done for Desire.” Also, a tip of the hat to Amy Winehouse’s “At the BBC,” a much finer way to remember a unique talent than the scrappy, posthumous “Lioness.”
Also – how could I forget – there’s music from the London Olympics, which proved to be a soundtrack of the year for many. The two albums of opening and closing music are a crash course in Britpop, with the Arctic Monkeys among the standouts.
- “Born to Die,” (long version) Lana Del Rey
- “Darkness,” Leonard Cohen
- “Dougou Badia,” Amadou & Mariam with Santigold
- “I’m Thinking of You,” Dexys
- “Irene,” Beach House
- “Man Alone,” Mike Tyler
- “Pyramids,” Frank Ocean
- “Battle Born,” The Killers
- “Bitter,” Lettie