Music Dump: Best of 2012 - Part 2

We reflected on Part 1 of our Best of 2012 music writing here on TheVine. Here's part 2:

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We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two by David Remnick (The New Yorker, July): David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker, and the author of the definitive biography of Obama - a serious writer. So no surprise that this is a beautifully written and wonderfully illuminating longread about who exactly Bruce Springsteen is. The Boss comes across as unusually sharp and insightful about what exactly his talents are. Remnick is a baby boomer Springsteen fan rather than a music lover per se, and so there's a bit of the hagiographic about this - it sort of amused me to read Remnick saying a Jon Landau review of Springsteen was the most famous review ever, when the most famous review ever is clearly a tie between Greil Marcus's 'What Is This Shit?' review of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait and Pitchfork's review of Shine On by Jet. Nonetheless, this is a superb character portrait, even if you don't care about Springsteen. (And if you loved this, you'll probably also love David Carr's New York Times piece on Neil Young).

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How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide by Maura Johnston (Village Voice, February): There's a bunch of unexamined assumptions and cliches about female musicians out there, and they very often creep into print - all those poor 'ethereal' 'chanteuses' who inevitably get compared to Kate Bush whether they sound much like her or not. Johnston makes the point here that this stuff is not only never applied to men, but that it's super lazy and gets in the way of actually helping the readers understand the music.

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Deconstructing Lana Del Rey by Jessica Hopper (Spin, January): And the artist this year who probably had the most lazy writing about her was Lana Del Rey. But this is one of the better pieces: Hopper here gives you the facts as we knew them a year ago, explaining expertly just how the Lana Del Rey phenomenon came to be. There's a lot here I'd never seen before, from how Lana Del Rey went to a fancy prep school to how she ended up in a trailer park in Springsteen's New Jersey, to how the A&R guy at Interscope signed her on the basis of seeing 'Video Games' on YouTube. Hopper's piece is a pretty good defense of what Del Rey is trying to do in her music, and what her appeal is.

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The Cooler Me by Eric Puchner (GQ, May): Eric Puchner is a middle-aged man with a wife and kids, and like many such men, has a lot of nostalgia for his formerly carefree wild existence. So, for this article, he sets out to find his doppelganger - a man who's mostly like him, except that he never settled down -- someone who's still cool. He picks Kyle Field, the singer-songwriter in the cult band Little Wings. Puchner is expecting (and maybe hoping) Field's life to be sad, full of desperate hanging on. But this isn't the case at all: Kyle seems to have a lot of friends, and to be in a good place in general. This is an interesting look at what it's like to be a musician compared to, you know, a normal person.

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You Masculine You by Mark Richardson (Pitchfork, March): Reading a record review, there's a temptation to see it as a total summary of the album, as an attempt to be as authoritative as possible. Yet, as Richardson points out, it's hard to avoid identifying with people who come across as being like you, and hearing something extra in that music because of the identifying. And so Richardson hears something in Bill Callahan's music that a female critic might not, and a female critic hears something in Grimes (pictured) that Richardson might not - different albums speak to different experiences in different ways. Of course, Bill Callahan and Grimes are both fundamentally humans, with human experiences; men and women aren't that different under the surface in most ways. And so, while it might take a bit more effort to understand what Grimes is trying to say if you're male, it doesn't mean that the experience isn't worth it.

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The Secret Life Of Transgender Rocker Tom Gabel by Josh Eells (Rolling Stone, May): For as long as he'd known, Tom Gabel of Against Me! has suffered from gender dysphoria; he's always felt that he didn't belong in a male body (apparently 1 in 30,000 men feel this way). He's struggled with this all his life, and feels that his substance addictions were ways to numb the pain. So now he's in the process of becoming Laura Jane Grace, and he's very happy about it. What's more, his wife is fine with it too - she expected to be much more upset about it, and isn't sure if it makes her a lesbian. This is fascinating stuff, handled delicately, and it's fascinating to read up on Gabel's backstory and the way he became pretty-famous punk musician despite (or because of?) his struggles. (Eells also wrote a fascinating profile of Jack White for the New York Times).

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Beat Boutique by Lindsay Zoladz (The Believer, July): Zoladz is fascinated by music libraries! No, not your local library's music collection; this is more the equivalent of stock photos. This is pre-ready music that can be bought by anyone for a fee, to be used—for example—in a commercial. It's music that is expressly created in order to sell out. And the strange thing is - this stuff is cool. Old library music LPs are highly prized by collectors, and not just for kitsch value; this is well made music that is intrinsically usable. (Zoladz's December piece on slowly becoming a pop fan, for Pitchfork, was great too)

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Chris Bell: That Don't Get Him Back Again by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Oxford American, April): Big Star are one of the cult bands from the 1970s, and if you know anything about them, it's probably that Alex Chilton was the lead singer. But in some ways, the heart of Big Star was the Anglophile guitarist Chris Bell, who had the biggest presence on their first record, and was gone by the third. Bell was a troubled soul, and you can hear that on his (amazing) solo track 'I Am The Cosmos'. In explaining Chris Bell and this song, Sullivan is aiming for no less than to explain the entirety of pop - it's meant to be a bit dumb, because the point is to transcend the dumbness.

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Songs In The Key Of Death by Nicole Pasulka (The Morning News, July): David Young may be one of the most successful musicians you've never heard of. His music has sold at least a million copies, and you are reasonably likely to have heard his music. Except that he makes music for funeral parlours. If you've been to a funeral and heard gently calming new-agey music being piped in, chances are it's David Young. It's fascinating to read Young talk about making his music, and what his aims are - to simultaneously sound reassuring but also make people feel like it's okay to respond with intense emotion to the situation.

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Perfect Circle: An REM Story Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, & Six by Steven Hyden (The AV Club, March-June): In this excellent series, Steven Hyden explores what it means to be a fan of a band by examining his own fandom of REM, and how his personal experiences of the band relate to the usual story that gets told about them. A piece that makes you reflect on your own experience of teenage fandom with whatever bands you discovered when you were a kid—be it The Monkees, KISS, REM, Smashing Pumpkins, Hanson, The Strokes or Gaga.

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Tim Byron

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