Advent Calendar Day 24: our PJ Harvey Award for album of 2013

And it looks like we might have made it, yes it looks like we have made it to the end – of our pop culture advent calendar. For those of you who have joined us on this from day 1, or just hopped on along the way, thank you. It’s been a long blog slog at a manic time of year, so we’ll probably take it easy here at Pop Lifer for a while, but it’s been a fun ride too.

Along the way we’ve examined the impact of the Olympics, lauded the genius of the Internet and  brainpicker’s unearthing of amazing online nuggests, enjoyed the furious brilliance of Plan B’s “Ill Manors”, expressed our longing for the return of Goldfrapp, named the Leveson Inquiry as the year’s most gripping drama, considered whether the Hillsborough victims are edging closer to justice, had fun and frolics with Frankmusik, enjoyed Grayson Perry’s ambiguous class commentary, congratulated Stone Roses for reuniting in a way that didn’t make us gag on our disgust and much, much more.

Yesterday we named Plan B as our single of the year, so today we inevitably turn to the album of the year. The truth is it wasn’t a viciously competitive year. We’ve said here before that it’s been a dull year for pop, a verdict surely proved by a glance at the UK top 10 at time of writing.

The UK top 10, courtesy of UK Official Charts,

The UK top 10, courtesy of UK Official Charts,

Do we really need to say much more? We supported the new number 1 for helping fund the Hillsborough families in their fight for justice, but we can’t defend it musically, let alone the rest of the bland, dead-eyed, “will this do” fare served up by the rest of the top 10, or the ongoing debacle of Gangnam. As for number 3, we remain convinced that this Britney Spears and duet was what the Mayans were warning us about: not the end of civilisation, but the end of a civilisation worth living in. The presence of Olly Murs and Flo Rida on the same record 4 positions further down surely proves this theory beyond contest.

Strangely, it’s in the form of albums that music has been far healthier – a form which should really be dead by now, given the way that digital distribution has not just shattered the physical ubiquity of the album but also disrupted that whole patient, long-form way of listening. 2012 has given birth to some brilliant albums : we particularly loved the collaboration between David Byrne and the terrifyingly talented St Vincent, the well loved Grimes record and Jack White’s surprisingly focused solo record.

But two albums really stood out for us over the year, and are the only ones we stil play regularly long after their release. So here is our album of the year and our runner up, one probably a controversial choice, the other most certainly not.

Runner up – Lana Del Rey, Born To Die


By the time Lana Del Rey’s debut album was released back in January of this year, the backlash was already in full swing. It’s still in swing, which may – coupled with the fact that it was released so long ago – account for why it has been ignored so pointedly by so many critics best of 2012 polls. But as soon as we heard it, the reason for her rise became obvious. It had little to do with cynical marketing, Daddy’s money or online
hyperbole – no matter what her sneering, often misogynistic detractors said – but about something older and more mysterious than that; the extraordinary, resilient power of the pop song. For all of her trashy Americana and startling beauty, if Del Rey hadn’t arrived in 2011 with a song as luminously beautiful as “Video Games”, none of her huge success would have happened.

So the only truly important question about “Born to Die” was whether there was more where that came from. The answer was an emphatic yes. Nothing else quite matched “Video Games’” eerie perfection of form  and melody – after all, 99% of singers go an entire career without finding one song that good – but several ran it perilously close.

What makes “Born to Die” so richly fascinating – and what marks Del Rey out from the
standard issue “I’m hot, you’re hot” pop starlet – is her interest in Hollywood stereotypes of American femininity, and her ability to shape-shift between them. So, on the stately, bloodstained title-track, Del Rey plays femme fatale, deliciously stoned and doomed, with an imperious vocal to match. On the addictive, sugar-rushing “Off to the Races” she’s trailer trash living the high life, her vocal veering deftly between husky cynicism and hiccupping glee; while on the tender “This Is What Makes Us Girls” she’s the poor little rich girl looking melancholically back on youthful hedonism.

It all reaches its apotheosis on “National Anthem” where Del Rey, dissatisfied with merely playing at being all American girls, becomes America itself, offering up deadpan slogans like “money is the reason we exist” before demanding utter patriotic devotion on the swaggering chorus. If that sounds knowing that’s because it is, not to mention intelligent, ambitious, and more interesting than anything Adele is likely to write even by the time her inevitable 72 collection hits the shelves of the future. It’s also brilliantly realised, thanks to Del Rey’s extraordinary delivery, her ability to slip from deep-toned haughtiness to breathless ecstasy to velvety vamping – often in the same gorgeous melody.

Born to Die isn’t perfect: it slumps slightly towards the end, and the glossy trip-hop
production grows wearying on lesser gothic melodramas like “Dark Paradise”. But it’s the most distinctive and assured debut since Glasvegas’ eponymous disc in 2008, and makes you desperate to see where she goes from here.

Note – much of this review first appeared in a fuller version published on the BBC: go here to read in full.

Winner – Frank Ocean, Channel Orange


This choice is crashingly obvious we know – Channel Orange has now become something of a critical juggernaut, having been celebrated in polls across the world as one of 2012’s most stunning achievements, from the Guardian’s and Billboard’s number 1, to number 2 for the BBC and even number 3 for the NME – but we’d like to put it on record that we’ve been cheerleading for “Channel Orange” since we first heard it in July.

Back then we wrote: “Channel Orange” is an exceptional album in which Ocean explores a huge array of subjects (the lifestyles of the black middle classes, the horrors of crack addiction, stripping and love, love, love) and musical styles (from squiggly seventies funk, to stark ballads, to techno-tinged epics) and synthesises them into something coherent, intelligent and gorgeous.

The months since have only made us learn to love and appreciate “Channel Orange” more. It’s a seductive record and, as Black Box Recorder once sang, “a heartfelt seduction lasts a lifetime.” What makes Ocean’s musical triumph doubly satisfying is that it has overshadowed the personal circumstances in which it was released, when Ocean bravely and gently revealed to the world that his first love had been a man. We’ve already celebrated that courage several times and believe it will change hip hop forever and not just inspire millions of young gay or bisexual people but save their lives. His courage inspired this very blog, indeed, so we have much to be grateful to him for.

But most of all we’re grateful for “Channel Orange.” As we say above, its a gloriously eclectic record, both musically and lyrically – outstripping Del Rey’s runner up in range, ambitions and sheer panache in meeting those ambitions. Yes, there are a few duller moments weighing down its 18 song length, and a few songs might have been trimmed to give it even greater impact (the slight electronica of “Lost”, perhaps?”) but for the most part it sounds like nothing less than total triumph.

Ocean had already proven he was an exciting talent with his free mix-tape “Nostalgia, Ultra”, which featured exquisitely thoughtful soul pop like “Swim Good” and “We All Try” (we highly recommend you get that album now: click here), but “Channel Orange” proved he was one of the most brilliant and versatile songwriters to emerge in years, often resembling his idol Prince in his sheer genre-hopping verve.

A few songs deserve singling out. Both “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids” are infectious soul numbers infused with a Stevie Wonder passion and sunniness, but which harbour grave, very 21st century doubts about the corrosive impact of – to paraphrase The Specials having too much, too young. Given the hip hop genre Ocean works loosely within, not known for its questioning of materialism, it’s particularly remarkable to hear such a piercing critique of wealth. “Crack Rock” is the dark mirror to these songs, a hooky, dreamy and terribly sad reflection on the lives lost (literally and metaphorically) to the crack epidemic. “How’s the gutter doing?”, Ocean asks, aching. He sings it beautifully, by the way: such is Ocean’s prowess in production and songwriting, that his soft, bruised soul voice has sometimes been forgotten.

But for all of Ocean’s brilliant, intelligent writing on the outside world, when he turns his keen eye and sharp phrasing back on himself the results can be even more extraordinary. His unrequited love for his old friend is not the album’s focus, but it does provide the album’s most charming moment, the breezily sweet stroll of “Forrest Gump”. It also supplies the nakedly emotional peak, on “Bad Religion”, with its soft echoes of Prince at his heartfelt best.

Just watch Ocean performing this extraordinary song below on the Jimmy Fallon show, his first time on mainstream television, and soak in the stark honesty of the words (“I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise”) and the aching beauty of the vocal (“I could never make him love me, never make him love me.”) Yes, pronouns matter, but the pain of unreturned love is universal.

That’s what Ocean’s gift is: to take the pain of the specific and to open it out into the universal. “Channel Orange” is an album that resists the ever more genre-driven, atomised approach to releasing music pandering to a particular niche market. It opens its arms to all, and one of 2012’s great joys was to fall into them.


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