Sunday, December 02, 2012

Albums of the Year 2012

Albums of the year lists come earlier every year it seems, and chances are I've not yet heard 2012's best records (I only discovered Nicholas Jaar's wonderful album after those lists came out last year) Anyway, here's a partial attempt at listing records that have made an impression on me.

Born to Die - Lana Del Rey 

There are 3 versions of the album now, mine's the original tight selection. Our thoughts that Lana was some kind of cult artist readymade for David Lynch film didn't quite lend to the reality - which is this is the best Madonna-like pop album for years, as aspirational and sparkly as "Like a Virgin", and as polished as "Ray of Light." So Lana Del Rey has morphed into a real pop star rather than a cult artist's approximation of one. If nothing's quite as poised as "Video Games" and "Blue Jeans" the tracks we knew her for, teen anthems "This is what makes us girls" and "National Anthem" are not far behind, but are pure pop confectionary.

Visions - Grimes

I was played the single "Oblivion" and its minimalistic catchiness seeped into my brain - so that I picked up the CD and went to see her. Mushroomed in popularity, you felt that she should be playing somewhere smaller and more intimate than the Ritz, and the stage show hadn't quite grown with her increased success - that said, the intricacies of the album sounded even better live. Are these cult songs that are inadvertently poppy or pop songs that are cleverly draped in experimentation? A little of both, I think. Grimes has stumbled on something genuinely new and original- retro electronica and echoes of 80s new wave fused into something new. Its an album that you keep wanting to play all the way through, but individual songs all have their own character.

Tonight I'm Gonna Soar - Dexys

I was never a massive Dexys fan - but I took a punt on this returning album and was glad I did - a brilliant suite of understated mature love songs, with a tasteful soul backing - its a heartfelt mini opera, that has Kevin Rowland's sometimes thin voice carefully massaged by the classical country-soul band interpreting the songs. Again, the songs came alive when played live, as a "suite" of songs - half stage show, half musical - but the dynamic range is there on the record as well.

The Allah Las - The Allah Las 

A late addition to my list - the Allah Las are like the perfect 1965 bar band that never really existed - surf guitar, mod licks, beat band rhythms - its unashamedly retro, as if waiting for a Tarantino film to be featured in - but somehow such pop classicism seems perfectly times for late 2012. Anyone who liked the early stomp of the Small Faces, the Action, the Rolling Stones of "Aftermath" and pre-Pepper Beatles, will find room for this lovely debut in their collection.

Until the Quiet Comes - Flying Lotus

How could Flying Lotus follow the immense originality of "Cosmogramma"? If that was a hip hop record in only the vaguest sense, oweing as much to sampledelic pioneers like DJ Shadow and the Avalanches, his new album is a quiet, more evenly stated thing - and none the worse for it. Its as much a jazz record as anything else - but again genre is defied - this is the jazz of late Miles Davis, 1980s Herbie Hancock and Spearhead but with a remarkable amount of sonic invention throughout. Again, an album for playing all the way through, its charms take a listen or two, but its worth taking the time.

Banga - Patti Smith 

Her first album of original material since 2004's excellent "Trampin'" its a perfectly honed record that plays to all Smith's strengths: there's poetry, quietude, yearning, loss, and beauty. The CD was beautifully presented in a "book" edition, but the contents is what's important - and its a really consistent record that can stand up with any of her latterday work, and even echoes some of her unimpeachable seventies material.

The Cherry Thing - Neneh Cherry and the Thing

Neneh Cherry always seemed a bit of an accidental pop star, after all her father was Don Cherry, and she was part of the avant jazz post punk madness that was Rip, Rig and Panic. This album came out of the blue - mostly covers, with the European jazz band The Thing, it reinterprets the Stooges "Dirt" and most remarkably Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" but never seems a gimmick - rather you feel that this is the music Cherry's meant to be singing.

Sun - Cat Power

Its been an incredibly female-friendly year, and I almost missed that there was a new Cat Power album out - and then when I got it, didn't play it for a while. Perhaps I wondered whether she could live up to "The Greatest". Its a very different record. She's ditched the Nashville country-soul licks, for a more varied instrumentation, that returns a little to her indie roots, but as ever with Cat Power its the expressiveness of her voice and the quality of her songs  - whether her own, as on here, or her interpretations - that really matters, and its a consummate collection. Like the Grimes album this is a record that is a "singer songwriter" album only in name; it finds new ways of constructing songs that seems to have inhaled the example of some of the more left-field acts out there.She even has Iggy joining her on the epic Heroes-echoing "Nothin But Time."

Ill Manors - Plan B 

When the video and single "Ill Manors" came out earlier in the year it felt like a direct response to the 2011 riots and was hailed as a "Ghost Town" for the era. Ben Drew, aka Plan B, is a very modern star though, and almost at that stage where critical acclaim or not hardly matters. He appears on adverts, sings and raps, has appeared in his first self-directed film to which this is a kind of soundtrack, he even gets the grizzled legend that is John Cooper Clarke to guest with him...  and he has hit records. "Ill Manors" the song is probably the heaviest record to make the top 5 all year, and its sonic template is repeated throughout the album, a modern industrial rap record, both a world away from his soulful breakthrough on "The Defamation of Strickland Banks" and entirely at one with it.

But it would be wrong to sum up 2012 based just on artist albums as two other things during the year were worthy of mention. Isle of Wonders, the Danny Boyle/Underworld soundtrack to the Olympic opening ceremony was stunning, and the double CD acts as a welcome reminder of that expressive event. Arctic Monkeys, Mike Oldfield and Vangelis's Chariots of Fire make the oddest claim to "Britishness" but two phenomenal Underworld tracks, the 17 minutes "And I will kiss" and the beautiful "Caliban's Dream" mean its a necessary addition to any collection. Secondly, contemporary R&B remained the soundtrack to the year - even if its now near impossible to separate the well-tooled pop, rock and R&B tracks, often constructed by the same producers or the same songwriters. Oft-derided Coldplay deserve serious kudos for being the one rock band that still goes head-to-head with the pop acts in the chart, and the discordant, no-chorus wonder of their Rihanna collaboration "Princess of China" was one of the year's oddest hits. As for R&B/pop music, the best tracks were unstoppable. Alex Clare's "Too Close" has the heaviest electronic chorus since "Firestarter", Azealia Banks' "212" raises expectations for this new artist, and Rudimental's "Feel the Love" and Rihanna's "Where have you been?" are wonders of the modern studio. More left field was Zebra Katz's minimalist psychothriller "Imma Read".

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