Saturday, January 5, 2013

Best of 2012: 15-11

15. Lana Del Rey: Born to Die [Polydor/Interscope]

Although not so thick as to be oblivious to the sophisticated beauty of “Video Games,” I felt a vague and inexplicable dislike for Lana Del Rey almost instantaneously. Just what we need: more scenes from a millennial in the haut monde of NYC, as if Lena Durham hadn’t provided me with a enough reasons to despair for my generation. Then, of course, there was the hype and (far more prevalent) the anti-hype of the blogosphere, neatly summarized and smartly critiqued in a 5.5 review on Pitchfork. While I don’t believe that it’s necessary or even salutary to get “beyond the hype” in order to appreciate an artist’s music, the astonishing vocal style, pop excellence, and expert songwriting of the first half of Born to Die certainly encouraged me to listen deeper. When I did, I found intelligent lyrics so nuanced as to whiz over the heads of nearly all its critics, who seem to like their messages more straightforward. Take for example Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz, who points out that the album’s “sexual politics are troubling”  (quite perplexing coming from a magazine which offered encomiums to Waka Flocka Flame and OFWGKTA). This is not entirely unfair, but the subtlety of Del Rey’s cynicism seem to escape Zoladz entirely. Fatalistically committed to debauchery and fatalism, Lana Del Rey (not Lizzy Grant) isn’t afflicted with emptiness-- she thematizes it. The same goes for her perceived helplessness, passivity, and detachment.  Like the creation of her cherished Marshall Mathers, Lizzy Grant’s dramatis persona uses irony as a means of exploring-not-promoting escapism. Through it all, she achieves an excellent balance between vivid imagery (Jesus on the dashboard, PBR on ice, Chateau Marmont) and pop truisms ("I will love you till the end of time," "do you think we'll be in love forever"). Her metaphors aren't the usual cliched crap ("hold you like a python," "take me like a vitamin"), and quoting Nabokov is a sure way to win over a lit guy like me.


14. Neil Young & Crazy Horse:
Americana [Reprise]

I adore Neil Young, but if you had told me he would be responsible for one of the best rock albums of 2012, it would take the Lord himself to convince me that you weren't full of shit. And if you then told me that this album was entirely comprised of American folk standards like "Oh Susannah" and "Clementine," well, I'm not sure if even the Almighty could persuade me. Embracing the populist and protest elements of the folk tradition as well as the notion of people's history, this love/hate letter to the US of A urges you to reconsider the handful of tunes you were taught and inculcated with in grade school, reconsider the simplicity with which you swallowed them at an early age and later rejected them as lame bourgeois propaganda. Oh so characteristically, Americana is both sloppy and thoroughly researched, unpredictable and rooted in tradition; in classic Crazy Horse fashion, it grooves, thumps, and rocks. Almost all of the original melodies are irreverently transmuted, while the lyrics reclaim the leftist sentiments of their authors, whether they were folkies or doo-wop legends. Although it isn't subtly revisionist, Americana does exhibit restraint in applying its radicalism, a neat trick which, amazingly, shows their qualified but sincere admiration for this country and, more amazingly, shows mine.

13. Allo Darlin': Europe [Slumberland]

The only listeners to offer paeans to Allo Darlin's "unashamed" love affair with Pop presume that loving Pop-- or worse still, Twee-- requires penance in the first place. Predictably, insofar as Europe obtunds the more obvious twee of their self-titled debut in 2010, it has earned significantly more praise among those who find twee algetic. Still, as much I enjoyed both albums, I can't deny that some (pardon my french) maturing has taken place. Melody here remains as central as it is irresistible, with each of these ten well-crafted tunes threatening to lodge itself well into your brain. Slowing down the tempo for at least a few of the songs doesn't diminish their catchiness in the least, proving Elizabeth Morris to be a talented songwriter capable of introspection as well energy, the best example being the trifling but lovely "Some People Say." Lyrically sharper and more self-aware, Morris laid a claim to my heart the moment she paid homage to the Go-Betweens, perhaps the greatest indie band my generation seems to be unfamiliar with, although she's still not going to turn me on to the far less worthy Silver Jews.

12. Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas [Columbia]

Make no mistake about it, this is his death album, something that becomes obvious from Cohen's impersonation of the Almighty in the opening track, if it wasn't already from the  campy and strangely touching album cover. Said track "Going Home" succeeds mainly as an encapsulation of the themes of the album, even if its tone of gentle humor immediately gives way to a deep grimness, grim prayers, grim hopes, grim fears, that is notable even for one of the most melancholy artists in the traditionally melancholy form of signer-songwriters. As befitting of a 78-year old, most of these songs bespeak a profound calmness and resignation. Even when his spiritual supplications acknowledge the fear and the trembling they always hint at, the feeling is always zen, which might eventually annoy if Cohen didn't keep a foot, at least a big toe, touching the ground of the colorful world he only partially regrets to leave behind: "I'm naked and I'm filthy and there's sweat upon my brow / And both of us are guilty, anyhow." The songs here are great, at times touching the doleful glory of Songs of Love and Hate; the lyrics, and especially the somber voice which delivers them, extraordinary. Youngsters and old folks, devotees who have cherished Cohen since the 70's and newcomers who ran across this album at their local Starbucks-- all are invited, and all should come.

11. The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth [Merge]

If you been educated in the U.S., there's a good chance you've had memorized at least a fragment of "The Raven" at some point in your life. You may have noticed how well Poe's poem lends itself to memorization-- its formulaic, painfully monotonous trochaic octameter hammering away at your eardrums. For purely mechanical reasons, I can also recite "The Raven" without having read it in years. For entirely different reasons, I can do the same for a hundred or so lines from the non-rhyming and far more supple verse of Paradise Lost, not because it mesmerizes but because of the arresting strangeness of its language. Although the songs here are as catchy as ever, I suspect John Darnielle's most incisive lines stay with me for the same reason as Milton's. Intelligent, funny, melodramatic, thoughtful, poingnant, poetic in-a-good-way-- utterances of loneliness and teenage exasperation strike you time after time: "Do every stupid thing to make you feel alive, "Sad and angry, can't learn how to behave /Still won't know how in the darkness of the grave," "Some things you do just to see / How bad they make you feel," "Hold my hopes underwater, / Stand there and watch them drown," "Count a couple of stray hopes outlawed, / May their numbers one day be increased," "Speed up to the precipice / And then slam on the brake. / Some people crash two or three times/ And then learn from their mistakes. / But we are the ones who don't slow down at all." With over twenty-something albums out, reaching a climax with the studio debut of 2002's brilliant Tallahassee, some (not I) may wonder why we need another Mountain Goats album.Its theme is familiar-- outcasts, outlaws, eccentrics, et al. personae non gratae-- and like most Mountain Goats albums, its vaguely conceptual if not always diegetic. But with horns (!) and the excellent jazzy drumming of Jon Wurster, who has definitely been listening to his Philly Joe Jones, the arrangements of Transcendental Youth sets it apart. Lyrically trenchant as ever, its real theme-- the ability of young people to find themselves through music and bohemian culture-- is as old as rock and roll itself.

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