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Best Coast – The Only Place

Everything about this album is catchy. It’s pretty ridiculous actually; even the album art is cutesy as fuck. A giant bear hugging the state of California? Yes, please. The Only Place will bait you with its jangly guitar hooks and saccharine Sweet Valley High vibes – vibes for which it caught a lot of flak. Singer Bethany Cosentino’s lyrics have been lampooned as immature, but the beauty of this record actually lives in that dear diary simplicity.

Songs like these, they tap into a vein of delightfully pure emotion that’s more honest than it is childish. It’s devoid of posturing, but Bethany and Bobb (the guitarist) bear the delicacy of these songs well, mixing surf pop and the wholesome melodrama of Midcentury ‘Cry Guy’ proto-rock into something nearly timeless. It transports the listener to visions of poodle skirts, leather jackets and slow dances in the best possible way. Best Coast nails the Grease vibe unlike anything this generation.

Reptar – Body Faucet

I want to like this album really badly. Really. And why should’t I? Reptar apes disturbingly well all the tropes of 2008/09 (a fine, fine vintage) that it’s almost hyper-nostalgic for a time that wasn’t really all that long ago. There’s a little bit of Odd Blood, a little bit of Oracular Spectacular, and a lot of Merriweather Post Pavilion in here (mostly thanks to producer Ben Allen). And while Reptar does an okay job with those inspirations, it ends up sounding like the Kidz Bop version of those great albums.

They do reach further back, sometimes a little too obviously – track 2 features a keyboard riff pulled from “Baba O’Reilly” and there’s a lot of Paul Simon-y World vibes thrown in too. Overall this is a middling album that probably deserved a little bit more critical consideration but ended up too bogged down in its influences and the heavy-handed application thereof.

Prince Rama – Top 10 Hits of the End of the World

Concept albums always have a tough road ahead of them. Just the words “concept album” tend to raise eyebrows. And on this, the mother of all concept albums, Prince Rama have written 10 different songs by 10 different imaginary bands that died during the apocalypse (coming soon) and presented them as a cheesy Now! That’s What I Call Music! style compilation.

On the cover, the sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson float above a dusky Stonehenge, microphones in hand like karaoke witches, lightning forking around them. They are flanked by 4 small snapshots of them in multinational costumery, presumably “press photos” of the bands they’re “channeling.” There are lengthy write-ups on all 10 bands and an accompanying philosophy. You literally could not ask for more from a concept album.

Others with more music credibility than I have claimed that the album fails on these terms, that Prince Rama are using the concept to pull the wool over our collective eyes. But taken all together, I think the sisters succeed on these terms – they compress a whole alternate future-retro world onto a disc in the same way a dungeon master invents worlds, taking the artists out of the music and bidding us deeper into their wild vision.

Of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks

Kevin Barnes is still on the verge of bursting with his own madness, which is very charming, but this time around it is a little less alluring. He has some trouble reviving the dark confessional stylings of Hissing Fauna, You Are the Destroyer here, though it’s obvious that he’s trying. His delvings into the human psyche here don’t feel as effortless as they once did.

What this album does right is the pushing of pop music against the barriers of what we as listeners think it can be. Combining the pop sensibilities of Barnes’ former work with the egregiously fragmented forms on Paralytic Stalks is a tough tightwire to walk, but Barnes does it as only he could. His vision is complex and uncompromised here – bordering at times on prog – something we may not have gotten with previous Of Montreal efforts; records that tended to condense and simplify Barnes’ unique sound. And while it’s nowhere near the psychedelic brilliance of the hallowed ground that this album echoes, the bravery that Paralytic Stalks projects as it unfolds Barnes’ honest imagination-probing is admirable indeed.

Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

The subject of this album’s contribution the year’s sonic offerings is quite contentious. And while you’ll see it on both best-of AND worst-of lists this season, most of the controversy around the music isn’t about the music at all. It’s about Lana. Whether the veracity of her lips or her curiously mis-represented trailer-trash past, Lana has naturally drawn the public eye toward her – even before her music was on a meteoric rise, both supporters and detractors alike were treating her as a movie star – probably because she has the allure of a starlet.

So let’s put that aside. Let’s pretend that Lana Del Rey looks like French Stewart and look at the music with a little more objectivity, because the album does have problems. Song to song, Born to Die vacillates wildly between class (“Born to Die,” Video Games”) and sleaze (“Diet Mountain Dew,” “National Anthem“), the whole time with Lana’s hypnotic voice pulling you through the lush and cinematic arrangements – this quality gives the album a hazy shizophrenic feel, like there’s two Lana’s in these songs, battling for supremacy. While she is refreshingly self-aware, Lana doesn’t do a good job of bridging her self-described “gangsta” leanings with her Nancy Sinatra-esque persona on the record, which, for me, is where the record begins to break down. Anyone can tell there’s a lot of posturing here, so in the end, it’s hard to get a grasp on what or who Lana Del Rey is, which is a huge folly for any debut record. By the end, we’re left with the check and Lana’s half-formed persona, which is problematic for an artist who is personality-first, talent second, like Lana. And yet there are redeeming qualities to Born to Die if you don’t try to take the album all at once – despite the macro issues, these songs are luxurious pop creations, crafted with a lot of attention to detail.


SO Note: What albums did you love to hate this year? Let us know @Serial_Optimist.