The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
Looking at my list of favorite albums of the past year illustrates why serious music fans like to follow artists. They’re going to grow, evolve, please us, frustrate us and sometimes surprise us.
1. David Byrne and St. Vincent, Love This Giant - Talking Heads were the greatest band ever. Period. They were an intriguing collective anchored by Kentucky’s own Chris Frantz on the drums. But at the center of it all was quirky frontman David Byrne whose interests guided the Heads through projects like True Stories and his own career through collaborations with Twyla Tharp, Brian Eno and many, many others. When I heard he was teaming with idiosyncratic artist St. Vincent, my immediate thought was, “That’s perfect!” But it was so much more than that. Love This Giant is a constantly renewing journey with two brilliant minds all anchored in brass and as exquisitely crafted as we’d expect.
2. Jack White, Blunderbuss – We have always heard Jack White in the context of bands such as The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, but knew he was the driving force and individual voice behind those acts. His solo debut brought White’s vision into full focus with two same-sex bands backing him on tracks that renewed his strongest influences. A lot of artists play the blues, but few play it like White.
3. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange – Hip hop and R&B are genres full of posturing cool, so it was refreshing when Frank Ocean stepped onto the stage at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and hung himself out there with his performance of Bad Religion, a confession of an unrequited love for another man. The story was intriguing; the album was an engrossing meditation on being a young man trying to navigate the world.
4. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die – One of the most polarizing artists of the year, you either loved her stylized, morosely idealized West Coast mope or you thought she was a complete fake — a previous career under another name fueling that perception. I loved it. At times, she tried a bit too hard. But overall, Born to Die was an astonishingly complete and compelling vision for a young artist I want to hear more from.
5. Mumford & Sons, Babel – Mumford & Sons had a strong following for a genre band when Babel was released this fall. This release just strengthened it, showing the British band’s take on American roots sounds was a genuine exploration of its possibilities. It also affirmed this is a band we will be listening to years from now.
Best single: Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars. The man is a flat-out entertainer, as his Grammy Awards and Saturday Night Live performances showed. Locked out of Heaven, which closes out the year riding high on the charts, is an addictive collection of hooks brilliantly produced to showcase one of the decade’s strongest voices.
It is fashionable to pick on Lana Del Rey. I am not a very fashionable guy.
When I downloaded her new album, Born to Die, I knew a bit about her background and of course had caught her now infamous Saturday Night Live appearance – the one NBC News anchor and music blogger Brian Williams called, “one of the worst outings in SNL history.” Kanye West and Ashlee Simpson set a pretty high hurdle for that accusation, but her performance didn’t hold my attention that night. Maybe it was the bourbon.
But the other day, when I hit play on that download in my car, I was transfixed.
It seems appropriate that Del Rey sits next to Lady Gaga on my player’s artist list, because while she doesn’t sound anything like LaGaga, she is trying to create a mood, a persona. It’s a contrast between big, dramatic classic sounds and lyrics that are very 21st Century, sometimes teenage. It’s like she’s trying to have mid-century Hollywood glamour in the context of 2012.
Occasionally she pushes the mood a bit too hard, like on Summertime Sadness. But when it works, it is a rapturous sonic escape like Video Game in which Del Ray sings about an old school-style romance but the keeps dropping in a somewhat jarring line about the guy wanting to play a video game. She peppers other dichotomies like that through the album, but never breaks the lush production and never, unlike that SNL turn, loses our interest.
The lingering question after a few listens to Born to Die is where will Lana Del Rey take her music from here? And when you release your first major label album, that’s a good thing to have people wondering.
Frankly, I have no idea what people are complaining about. Maybe Del Rey is better if you don’t Google her before you listen to the album.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich