Although it’s still early and I’ll have many new additions before it’s done, I’ve never felt more confident about a year-end list. My album count is down overall, but it’s very likely I’ll have a longer list this year—with zero second guesses—than any other year. 2014 has been really great for music.
LANA DEL REY – Ultraviolence (Interscope): Word of advice: don’t play this if you can’t afford to fall asleep. See, LDR works in theory: she’s slim and attractive; is pouty, brooding, and mysterious; alternates between her whispered falsetto and husky alto to sing slow dirges. In short, the perfect poster child for a Serious and Intelligent Artist. Only her brooding is confused for contemplation, and she has the personality of a potato and an emotive demeanor just as interesting. The background is crowded with an ensemble of over a dozen musicians performing all kinds of instruments, a wall of sound swollen to its limits and necessarily so, as LDR’s voice—reverbed and overdubbed and filtered like cray—can’t carry something sparse and so must be supplemented by the illusion of musical emotion. And yet nothing is as sweeping as Beach House’s epic “Myth,” for example, to sustain that illusion, and so it sounds, emotionally, like still bathwater rather than a storm at sea. That’s not to say it’s not pretty: it is, and it’s better than her debut. It’s just the kind of pretty that makes for good lullabies, not sulking. So if you’re looking for a sedative, talk to your doctor about LDR today. B PLUS (**)
ARETHA FRANKLIN – Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics (RCA): On her first studio album on a major label in eleven years, the Great Diva dives into a cover collection running a 55-year gamut from 1954 (Dinah Washington’s take on “Teach Me Tonight”) to 2011 (Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”) and covering all sorts of soul such as The Supremes’ Motown single “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to her own immortal interpretation of “Respect,” hits up Broadway with Streisand’s “People” and disco on Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” All of which are nearly identical musically (or at least rhythmically) to the originals; it’s Ms. Franklin’s unique vocal stylings that bring the tunes to life, and sometimes it works better than others. When she cranks up the emoting on Alicia Keys’ “No One” or powers through the “I’m Every Woman/Respect” medley, this is more than super-listenable—it’s downright revelatory. But delving into a bizarre scat transformation of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” courtesy of Andre 3000 or a not terribly fascinating song like “People” weighs everything down, clashing genre and particularly propulsion. Still, it’s Ms. Franklin’s voice—weathered as it may be at age 72—that puts her personal stamp on everything here, even if nothing surpasses the first takes. A MINUS