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Class of 2012: A Look Back

Last year, I was privileged enough to start something that turned into a great feature here on Faronheit. That was the “Class of 2012“, in which I chose 10 artists whose profiles I expected to rise significantly that particular year. After unleashing those names in January, I spent the year following their progress to see if they made good on that initial promise.

Some of the artists, like Grimes, Frank Ocean and Purity Ring, turned out to be inspired choices. Grimes was the #1 most blogged about artist of 2012. Frank Ocean released a record that revitalized R&B and got him applause that led to earning the top spot on many a year-end “best of” list, plus a nomination for the Album of the Year Grammy. Purity Ring just plain made a great album called Shrines that got them the same sort of praise, though maybe on a slightly smaller scale. So those were the main success stories from that last class.

Others didn’t work out so well. Kreayshawn was a “controversial” choice, a girl with a couple decent hip hop singles to her name, but who many felt was annoying and attempting to destroy the very fabric of popular music today. She promised her album would “put the haters in their place,” but sadly it only gave them more fuel to throw on the fire. She’ll undoubtedly keep trying, but will anyone bother to listen? Then you had a band like Blonds, an indie pop duo out of Florida. Their debut album The Bad Ones came out last summer, and while it often sounded like a mixture of bands like Tennis and Cults, the hooks just weren’t quite there and neither were the reviews. It wasn’t a poor effort by any means, it may just have struck at the wrong time – when a bunch of similar-sounding bands had already taken over an already crowded field.

And now a few words on Lana Del Rey. Arguably speaking, she’s a success. Her record may have been so-so outside of a few strong singles, but where she failed musically she struck gold as a figurehead. She barely even toured in 2012, yet continued to gain popularity thanks to a bunch of modeling work and commercial appearances for high end merchandise. You could say that music was just a springboard for her towards something much larger. As she moves in a new direction, can acting be far behind? We’ll see what happens in 2013. In regards to someone like Nicolas Jaar, he spent most of 2012 waking up to the idea that his album Space is Only Noise continued to be discovered and gain new fans almost every day. I expected him to rush and release something new to capitalize on his slow burn rise in popularity, but he instead chose to make some more subtle movements. Okay, so maybe releasing a compilation of largely unreleased music via a cube called The Prism isn’t entirely subtle. But he did that, compiled a BBC Essential Mix featuring some of his favorite artists, remixed a Cat Power track, and unleashed a new single called “The Ego” late in the year. He also toured quite a bit, and I saw him perform twice, which he was great both times. Maybe we’ll have something new from him in 2013?

Speaking of that, a few of my Class of 2012 still haven’t peaked quite yet. Their debut full lengths were due in 2012, but ultimately got pushed back to 2013. In other words, this year is going to be a big year for all of them, though arguably last year was too. Charli XCX put out a couple singles, an EP and a mixtape in preparation for her debut, and continues to gain new fans through touring as well. A$AP Rocky‘s record LongLiveA$AP got delayed and will finally be out this month, but he toured quite a bit in 2012 with the A$AP Mob, and unleashed a couple singles and videos. Oh man, remember that music video he did with Lana Del Rey for her song “National Anthem”? He played JFK, which was really quite out of left field. Finally, there’s Azealia Banks. Her 2012 was pretty huge, with her 1991 EP and Fantasea mixtape both coming out to a fair amount of praise. Both didn’t quite meet the expectations of her earliest singles, but the hope is that her debut full length Broke With Expensive Taste will rise to the occasion when it comes out in February. Meanwhile she’s attracting enough attention in the last couple weeks thanks to a fresh feud with Angel Haze that seems almost purposely created to promote one another. Whatever it takes to keep your name in the headlines, I guess. So long as the music is good, I don’t care how you promote it.

So let’s tie these artists up in a neat little bow and file them away for another day. Most assuredly they’ll all continue working in 2013, some with greater success than others. I’m proud of each and every one of the Class of 2012, even the ones that didn’t do so well. I plan to continue to follow all of them for the foreseeable future, but probably won’t actively report on any of it unless it feels absolutely necessary. Instead, I’ve got to shift my focus to the new year, and a brand new class. There are 10 new artists I’ll be following for all of 2013, and I’m super excited to reveal them to you later this week!

Album Review: Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man [Parlophone]

The worst thing about the new Bat for Lashes record The Haunted Man is its cover art. That’s not to say the Ryan McGinley photo featuring a fully nude Natasha Khan wearing an equally nude man as a shawl that covers up her private parts is bad or even distasteful. It is the opposite in fact, a work of high-minded art that’s absolutely representative of the sort of music you will find within. Only the best cover art work will achieve such prominence. So what, in turn, makes it the worst thing about this album? Because the first thing that comes to mind when seeing it is, “ooh, provocative and sexy!” and that’s not what this music is. Meanwhile some 16-year-old boy with a parental locked internet connection is filing it away somewhere to fulfill his own dark desires. The point being, that while this is one of the smartest and most beautiful album covers to come along in a while, most won’t see it that way. In fact, the controversial nature of it sucks all the attention away from the actual music, which absolutely is smart and beautiful. It’s also hopelessly raw and sparse in spite of the multi-instrumental set pieces and full orchestration contained within. Khan’s bravura vocals handle most of the intense emotion, and the peeling back of echoes, reverb and other treatments that were thrown in on her last album Two Suns allows you to connect better with the true human underneath that window dressing.

Of course you listen to a track like the opener “Lilies” and the combination of synths and strings borders on overbearing until her voice cuts through the dissonance and soars when she sings the line, “Thank God I’m alive!” Where the true heart of The Haunted Man really lies is in the sobering piano and vocal pairing on “Laura.” At what might as well be called the center point of the record, the song sits on an island all its own as we’re told all about the amazing Laura, who’s “more than a superstar.” The better we come to know her through the lyrics and the way she’s described, the more we begin to believe in such a mythical creature. If you thought Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” was a perfect piano ballad single, “Laura” should satisfy in almost equal measure. And wouldn’t you know it, both songs were co-written by Justin Parker. For fans of Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know,” there’s more familiarity to be found via the single “All Your Gold.” The two tracks feature the same basic rhythm pattern and structure, along with the inevitable malaise that comes with the ending of a relationship. The chorus to “All Your Gold” even features the line, “There was someone that I knew before,” which to some will seem just a little too on the nose. The Bat for Lashes track is arguably the better one though, removing any theatricality and cutting straight to the bone in its words and composition. Really any comparisons you draw from this record, to the points where some of the synth-baiting electronic textures come across as remarkably M83-ish or the very Kate Bush-ian nature contained in most everything Khan does, are great reference points.

But in the end that’s ALL they are: windows into a world of music we might otherwise not fully understand or grasp. See, Bat for Lashes is so much more than a collection of things that sound like other things. Khan is a true original, and the words she writes, along with the intense emotion that echoes in her voice through every note, set her apart from any similarly-minded music peers. “Oh Yeah” is a great example of this. Many a person has tried to fill a void in their life via sex, but few artists have accurately echoed that tumultuous period as well as Khan does here. “I’m looking for a lover to climb inside / Waiting like a flower to open wide / I’m in bloom” makes for one of the most overtly sexual choruses since the tUnE-yArDs song “Powa” from 2011. Like that song, there’s a newfound sense of freedom and excitement in the vocals that pushes the listener into believing this remedy will finally create a sense of wholeness, however temporary. The point being that while the solution to 99% of life’s problems isn’t sex, for the five minutes of that song Khan earnestly wants to believe it is, and so do we.

As with any sexual encounter, there’s a certain amount of baggage that each person brings to the table that stems from past relationships and past experiences. It points to the more overarching theme of The Haunted Man, which is that we’re all living with ghosts whether we like it or not. Of course those ghosts are metaphorical, but we still allow them to weigh on our spirits. They go beyond the flesh of our bodies and can’t be covered up no matter how many layers of clothes we wear. This record is filled with those ghosts, “Laura” and “Marilyn” among them, but what’s most important is how Khan deals with it. Instead of letting their fates and legacies align with hers, she gets acquainted with her demons and finds the path to managing them without losing sight of her own identity. It makes for a great life lesson, and an even better record.

Bat for Lashes – Laura

Bat For Lashes – All Your Gold

Buy The Haunted Man from Amazon

Album Review: Lana Del Rey – Born to Die [Interscope]

Lana Del Rey is a magnet. People are drawn to her, and to her music, and everyone that hears her or knows about her has an opinion. Four or five months ago, you probably heard far kinder things being said about her compared to today, where the inevitable backlash has reared its ugly head and nearly swallowed her whole. All this before her major label debut album Born to Die even sees release. To be fair, the build up and press surrounding Del Rey has been huge – she is signed to a major label and the sky high hopes of executives are that she’ll eventually join the ranks of a Lady Gaga or a Beyonce in the realm of pop superstardom. That’s a very real possibility no matter how much crap she puts out there, so long as it sells. This is coming from the same world in which Ke$ha has a lucrative career despite being one of the more reviled pop stars in recent memory. But what is it about Del Rey that has drawn such ire from people? There’s a laundry list of things, so let’s try and break it down.

Lana Del Rey’s real name is Lizzy Grant. She had a privileged upbringing in New York that eventually resulted in a trip to boarding school and a stint at Fordham University. She dropped out of school to pursue a music career, and built a relatively respectable reputation as a Nancy Sinatra-esque, classically inspired crooner. Doors were opened for her, but not exactly the right ones or the ones she was looking for. As such, she invented her own persona and drastically changed her look to go along with it. Gone was the plain Jane Lizzy Grant, and in her place was the glamorous, full-lipped Lana Del Rey. Under the new name and style she quickly flourished, and though her 2010 debut A.K.A. Lizzy Grant went largely unnoticed, last summer she released the single song “Video Games” and the internet grabbed hold of it with a fierce intensity. It was a matter of months before Interscope Records came calling on the wings of yet another new and excellent song, “Blue Jeans”. It seemed that Grant was getting everything she wanted via the transition into Lana Del Rey. But was it too much success, too soon?

Early Del Rey detractors started by citing her fake persona. She couldn’t make it with her real name and real style, so she had to invent a character instead? How disingenuous of her! Not only that, but her character of Lana Del Rey is this pretty, platinum blonde with pinup style that appears to sell her sex. Listen to the lyrics of “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” as well and you’ll notice she’s singing about needing a big, strong man to keep her safe and warm, and how she’ll stick with him and essentially live to serve him while he goes off and plays video games. She’s playing up antiquated notions of women, that they’re supposed to slave in the kitchen all day, stay home with the kids, and generally accept whatever their husbands want. It’s a far cry from today’s women, fiercely independent and proving they’re equal with men on every level, even as the pay scales still don’t entirely reflect that. So yes, the controversy surrounding Del Rey is understandable. Many have undoubtedly been rooting for her to fail, and their wish is swiftly being Grant-ed. A few weeks ago she turned in a disastrous performance on Saturday Night Live, one that sent the internet abuzz yet again, this time with far more jeers than cheers. As NBC News anchor Brian Williams said, it was foolish of the show to put Del Rey on when her album hadn’t been released and her only notable accomplishments were having two songs popular with the online community. Very few people have gotten so far by doing so little. We’ve finally reached the apex though, the moment that will truly make or break Lana Del Rey – the release of her much-anticipated album Born to Die.

From start to finish, Born to Die feels like a statement. It seeks, as a whole, to try and be the official definition of what and who Lana Del Rey is. The two tracks that made her a rising star, “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” both show up early on in the record, and right next to one another. They are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the grandiosity and melodrama in place here, yet they also provide ample evidence that perhaps she doesn’t have much going for her otherwise. The opening title track signals its arrival with a rush of orchestration and sweeping majesty, quickly paired with a very basic electronic beat that holds steady for the duration. From the very start Del Rey is in a sad emotional state, wandering the streets in her heels, hoping that when she arrives at her man’s house he’ll open the gate and let her in. That theme of neediness and essentially pleading for acceptance extends through much of the album and is also a mirror to real life, in which the pop singer tries everything she can to ingratiate herself to a less than adoring public. Things change in a remarkably interesting way on “Off to the Races”, wherein Del Rey seems to want some street cred. She tells of how her “old man” is an evil gangster, involved in everything from drugs and maybe even murder, but she doesn’t care about that because he holds her hand and loves her with every beat of his “cocaine heart”. He sips Cristal while she swims around topless in the pool for his enjoyment. But she also says that she’s crazy and demands money and gold so she can go to the races and spend money all over town. The coup de gras in all this comes in a few lines in the chorus in which she says, “I need you to come here and save me/I’m your little scarlet starlet singing in the garden/kiss me on my open mouth”. Sure, it’s bad enough just to read it, but the WAY she sings it, in the most innocent, high-pitched baby voice a la Betty Boop, feels like an affront to women everywhere. Yet thinking about it from a different perspective, perhaps it’s just the opposite. A ruthless and tough girlfriend of a gangster one minute and an innocent young girl in need of saving the next, it appears she’s playing the latter role with her man to obtain money and access. Again, we’re dealing with parallels to real life.

Lizzy Grant is playing the role of Lana Del Rey. She must know the stereotypes she’s portraying and is either comfortable with lowering herself to obtain success, or is doing it to be ironic. In a perfect world it’d be the latter, but at the moment it appears to be the former, or at most a little from column A and column B. If she gave a little wink or even a smirk now and then, it’d be easier to say she was faking it to get people talking about gender issues and to work that much harder to change how success is obtained. Instead, everything about her, from her videos to her interviews to her live performances and the songs on Born to Die, smacks of overwrought sincerity. Yet it’s difficult to think a person would purposely sell their entire gender short just to earn money and popularity. Maybe Lizzy Grant really does have more in common with Lana Del Rey than one would reasonably think. Maybe she’s not a good person in the least. Or maybe she simply needs an outlet through which she can channel a life and emotional state built upon sadness, allowing the character to live and work through the situations she herself has trouble dealing with. What we’re searching for is clarity. Something to help us truly understand how Lana Del Rey came to be, and where she might go in the future. The record doesn’t provide any answers, or at least appears not to. What you get instead are a mixture of heavy ballads and tracks that take closer cues from hip hop and R&B, each one like the layer of an onion peeling back to try and explain or re-explain this persona Lizzy Grant has created.

After a moderately strong first 5 tracks, which include the aforementioned singles and most likely future singles “Diet Mountain Dew” and “Off to the Races”, Born to Die slowly descends into bland and boring ballads that are overlong and similarly styled to what came before them. They reiterate many of the same lyrical points as well, only with less emotion and less compelling melodies. The second half of the record is a chore to listen to in many ways, and the 3 bonus tracks on the deluxe edition only make it worse. Somehow 60 minutes with this thing feels nearly twice as long. Perhaps it’s the lack of briskly paced, faster tempo pop songs that are the main source of the drag. In an alternate universe somewhere there’s a 10 track, 35 minute version of Born to Die that is nearly perfect. The reality is we don’t need songs like “Dark Paradise” or “Million Dollar Man” as they feel more like padding than legitimate attempts to write smart or engaging songs. That’s a talent we know Del Rey has, because in spite of all the bitching, “Video Games” still completely devastates with every listen. It’s the high watermark she will continue to try and return to for the rest of her career, however long it may last. And though almost all of Born to Die doesn’t live up to the stratospheric expectations that were established for it by months of hype, you have to admire the risks it takes to even make a record like this. For a major label release of course there’s a couple of blatantly commercial elements to it, but between the dominance of 50’s-style melodramatic ballads and the brazen commitment to a purely fictional character, it’s got more of a story to tell and is more sonically adventurous than a whole lot of other big name artists. At least Lizzy Grant is trying something unorthodox, whether it’s for the right reasons or the wrong ones. Will it all work out for her in the end, or will she end up like one of her lesser songs – sad, pathetic and antiquated? That’s for you and your wallet to decide.

Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

Lana Del Rey – Blue Jeans

Lana Del Rey – Video Games

Preorder Born to Die from Amazon

Class of 2012: 10 Artists to Watch This Year

Welcome to 2012! I hope you all had a great New Year’s. For my Chinese readers, we’ll celebrate next month. I’m very pleased to kick off this fresh new year in a similar fashion to how we ended 2011: with a list. Typically I leave all the listmaking for December and Listmas, but in this particular case I wanted to set a few objectives for 2012 and stick by them. That is to say, I want to step out on a proverbial limb and predict what will be hot this upcoming year. So I have created what I’m calling the Class of 2012: 10 Artists to Watch This Year. These are artists that, if you haven’t heard of them yet, hopefully you’ll know much more about them by the end of the year. I’m expecting big things from all these artists, though to be clear “big” can be defined a few different ways in this case. A couple of them will sign minor league record deals and make a small splash on the indie circuit, going from completely unknown to only relatively unknown. Others will become enraptured in the hype cycle and achieve much critical acclaim and potentially indie stardom. And even a few might just break out huge, turning into the next music superstars. The grand hope is that all these artists will obtain some serious forward momentum and reach your radar screens sooner rather than later. My plan is to provide periodic updates on all 10 of these artists, keeping a close eye on where they’re at and what they’re doing, in addition to the site’s more typical cycle of album reviews and mp3 giveaways. Stick with me as we learn more about the Class of 2012 so we can say we discovered them together. Let’s start with some introductions, so click past the jump to learn more about these wonderful ladies and gentlemen and hear some music by each one of them as well.

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