Thursday, January 10, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2012

I have two albums from 2012 that really stand out. One non-classical and one classical.

Blunderbuss—Jack White

This is Jack White's first solo album. It's interesting; you can hear a real difference between this album and his work in The White Stripes and The Raconteurs. But at the same time, you'd never mistake this as anything but Jack White. If you just hum the ostinato from "Freedom at 21," it sounds remarkably similar to the famous bass line from "Seven Nation Army." Yet the distance in mood between those two songs is chasms wide. For one, he's got much more complex drumming going on in this song than in anything he ever asked of Meg. For another, while the riff in "Seven Nation Army" felt like the footfalls of fate, "Freedom at 21" is charmingly playful.

Speaking of playful, maybe my favorite track from this album is the exuberant "I'm Shakin'."He covers the original song by Little Willie John and once again proves that he is a genius at covers. Just compare White's version of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" with Dusty Springfield's. It puts the original to shame. Not as much with "I'm Shakin'," since I think Little Willie John actually has a better voice than Jack White. But White has so much more energy, which is kind of a mystery because White is singing only a hair faster. His backup singers help, as does the distortion in his microphone, but there's just something in the way he says "noy-vuss" that really sells it for me.

One thing that was refreshingly delightful about this album was how clever the lyrics were. I love White's work in the The White Stripes, but he never struck me as a particularly clever lyricist. So I was surprised at the witty waltz that is "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy." Just the title is so lovable. And although this may not be Chaucer, it's still well above the mean level of songwriting flooding today's airwaves:

And that's the name of the game
Keep on stayin' the same,
Ain't nobody to blame
Nobody but the poor boy, the poor boy.

Another delight of the album is the range and mixture of styles it offers. Of course he has straightforward rock songs like "Sixteen Saltines," but you can hear that Nashville has rubbed off on him in pieces like the titular "Blunderbuss." And once again, you just don't hear much music like "I'm Shakin'" these days.

Recomposed by Max Richter – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

As for my favorite classical album, it has to be this one. Max Richter's composition is a revelation. Note by note, he took apart Vivaldi's Four Seasons (which, doubtless you've heard before) and turned it into something modern, beautiful, compelling, and fresh. This sort of thing is often attempted, but rarely does it produce such magnificent results. Check out the first bit of Spring. Richter gives us a radiant synthesis of Vivaldi, Messiaen, minimalism, and postrock.  Every time I listen to this piece, I want to hear more of it, and that's not just because of the abrupt ending. Because of the repetition in the bass line, the piece gives you the feeling that it could keep on rising in force towards infinity. The interplay among the violins is also a treat to parse. While Vivaldi's original always suggested birdsong, here the idea is inescapable. It sounds like you've stumbled into some sort of celestial aviary, and just as you are getting a sense of the space, the vision vanishes. 

There's so much to love and so much to get lost in. The moody soundscapes in movements like Summer 2 and Winter 3 are rich and fertile. Winter 2 has all the haunting intimacy of a walk across a field of snow. And then there are the celebratory movements like Spring 3 and Autumn 3 that are bursting at the seams with pure joy.

But often I find the simplest things in his work the most compelling. Putting Winter 1 into 7/8 was no feat of mathematical or musical genius, but it gives the piece such a fresh lilt that lets listeners newly approach a piece that is so familiar.

And maybe my favorite piece in the entire set is Summer 3. I love the ferocity Richter brings out of Vivaldi's original. But even more than that, I love the mournful, exquisite violin solo that enters towards the end. It is the essence of simplicity, but in that simplicity it finds a profound elegance and poignancy.

Over the past few months I've sometimes invented excuses to give these two albums to people because I know they'll love the music so much.

Anyway, here's hoping for more great music like this in 2013.