1) LANA DEL REY--Born to Die
The best record of the first part of 2012 is also one of the most controversial, not so much due to the content of said record, but mainly due to public opinion of del Rey after her infamous Saturday Night Live performance in late January. One could say it was one of the worst performances to ever grace the SNL stage, but I like to think of it more as awkward, like somebody who just wasn't ready for such a big platform, and as her performance a couple weeks later on David Letterman showed, she could do much better. Performance blunders or not, Born to Die is a fantastic album about heartbreak and despair. Some tracks carry some serious swagger, such as "National Anthem", which has a certain Nancy-Sinatra-as-Gangsta vibe, but it's the haunting cuts like "Video Games" and "Born to Die" that really slay. Del Rey does disconnected and disaffected very well, and she feels the pain like thousands of Britney wannabes trapped in a Lynchian-Mulholland Drive-esque world of starlets with faded dreams. This record is all about Hollywood and the obvious disappointments that come with it. Plus, "Dark Paradise" sounds like a long, lost Marc Almond song. Startling, and unlike anything else out there.
I suppose this is fairly predictable, but I was really hoping MDNA would rate higher. What we really get from Madonna here is a very solid type of party album, but one that comes with a host of issues that hold it back from being a masterpiece. First of all, the running order is no damn good. "Girls Gone Wild" is a poor entry for first song (with some misspoken lyrics about being "heartly sorry", whatever that means), and the immediate detour into "Gangbang" does little to elevate proceedings by being possibly the strangest song ever to feature as track 2 on a multiplatinum artist's comeback record. My favorite track comes third ("I'm Addicted"), as it does a much better job balancing the experimental electro side with the accessible pop hooks. Songs like the single "Give Me All Your Luv" could succeed were it not for some dodgy chant-along lyrics that don't really work for someone in their early 50's, or "Superstar" with its tropes connecting dedications comparing upstanding societal figures like Al Capone and Caesar with Abe Lincoln (because he "fights for what's right.") Only Madonna could have written words like these, so I KNOW she contributed to this album. "Falling Free" is an amazing glimpse at Ray of Light-era Madonna seen through that producer's eyes (William Orbit), featuring her best vocal performace since 1997. One wishes there was sometimes a little bit more breathing space for her voice, but she did come up with a full platter of catchy tunes (even if "B-Day Song" deserves to be left on a beat-up cassette somewhere). "Turn Up the Radio" seems like the safest bet for a hit single, so we'll have to see what happens from here. For now, I think I'll have to scramble the playlist in the hopes it makes more musical sense.
3) SINEAD O'CONNOR--How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?
She may be a complete wackadoo, but Sinead O'Connor can really sing. Not the kind of melismatic showy kind of singing perfected by Whitney Houston and stolen by Mariah Carey, or the nuanced kind, like Sarah McLachlan. She is no soul diva, but she has soul, and she doesn't yell, yet has a powerful howl that could put Florence Welch in the back row. How About I Be Me is Sinead's finest album in at least a decade (maybe more), and while it has several shifts in mood and lyric, it is all undeniably her. Any song that begins with the lyrics, "I bleed the blood of Jesus over you and over every fucking thing you do" can only be a Sinead tirade against the Catholic Church (the pedophile-blasting "Take Off Your Shoes"). There is also much joy on this album, such as "Vine St."'s depiction of her marriage ceremony, and the glorious "Wolf is Getting Married", alluding to her wild past being somewhat tamed. Unfortunately this album was plagued by bad press when it was released, as Sinead was going through some terrible things related to her bipolar nature. Now it's time to let the music speak for itself.
Fantastically innovative pop from New York duo with echoes of Hall & Oates AND the Cocteau Twins. How many bands can you say THAT about? Brilliantly produced and the vocals are top notch.
5) SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS--Ghostory
This band continues making great music, even after one of the Deheza twin sisters left. Now just a duo, the level of professionalism here continues to grow. Try listening to "Lefaye" and not doing a Stevie Nicks spin! Otherworldly.
6) 2 BEARS--Be Strong
Possibly the best party record so far this year from Hot Chip's Joe Goddard side project. DFA Records is home to this stellar house-influenced full length. "Bear Hug" will make you smile, but songs like "Work" and "Take a Look Around" are the real soul of this album. And to think, a new Hot Chip record is on the way as well!
7) PIERCES--You & I
These sisters from the south keep getting better with each release. This one was produced by Guy Berryman of Coldplay and comes up sounding more like Mamas & the Papas meets Fleetwood Mac than anything else. Disarming and haunting simultaneously.
8) BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB--A Different Kind of Fix
In a very short amount of time this band has switched from one style to the next, but have hit on something really special with this third release, also showing their ability to mine a great melody while keeping the arrangements innovative and original. More please.
9) BARRY ADAMSON--I Will Set You Free
A grand dame of unusual music, the latest from former Bad Seed Adamson finds him going for a more direct approach, allowing his croon to find its natural state more often than not. There are also some quite great moments here, as on the lovely "If You Love Her" or the dark noir of "Trigger City Blues". If you haven't heard Barry, you are missing nearly 25 years of great unique British soul, funk, and cinematic music.
10) MAGNETIC FIELDS--Love at the Bottom of the Ocean
The Fields return with what is most likely their least self-conscious and most humorous and heartfelt album since the magnum opus, 69 Love Songs. "Andrew in Drag", a paean to drag queen love, is a surefire winner in and of itself, and while the album never again reaches that high, there are many other songs that make wonderful additions to their musical canon.
Other notable entries:
KAISER CHIEFS--Start the Revolution Without Me
SNOW PATROL--Fallen Empire
SLEIGH BELLS--Reign of Terror
SNEAKY SOUND SYSTEM--From Here to Anywhere
Fear not followers, there will be a lot more music to come by mid-year, and there may be a special post or two along the way if I can be arsed to do it. Thanks again for reading, and hopefully you'll find something you can join me in loving!