Thursday, January 10, 2008

The best of 2007

So 2007 was a wonderful year for music; even better than 2005 and much better than 2006.  It was so good, in fact, that a list of 10 or 20 won't do.  There are 50 albums on this list, but let's be realistic: there were way more than 50 great releases in '07.  In fact, I could have made a list of my top 75 but c'mon, I'm not that much of a nerd.  Fifty will do...

1. Sunset Rubdown – Random Spirit Lover

While his other band, Wolf Parade, had bloggers’ mouths watering about a release slated for this year (it’s now set for 2008), songwriter extraordinaire Spencer Krug quietly released a Sunset Rubdown album in October.  The singer/songwriter/keyboardist/guitarist later admitted to an online magazine that he obsessed over the record. He said he put in so much effort, he just wanted to move on from the album’s content after its completion.  These sentiments may well be experienced by listeners. That is: obsession and exhaustion.  Random Spirit Lover is certainly not for everyone.  It defies simple categorization (prog circus-rock?), because of its absurd individual parts.  In fact, it sounds like it would be downright awful when these parts are taken into consideration: 70’s prog-rock lead guitars, 80’s sleaze-metal synths, carnival music, A Capella vocal interludes… all while the singer does his best Bowie impression.  The music is as chaotic as it seems, as each song bleeds into the next with a sweeping fury.  And yet it all works.  Random Spirit Lover is a surprisingly cohesive album that boasts thoughtful, if off-kilter, orchestration and lyrics.  It’s all set to a sort of stage-production theme where actors intermingle with “winged wicked things” and “stallions.”  Though the meaning behind the lyrics (and music, for that matter) is often vague, insight unravels with each successive listen.  Often, as with the musical arrangements, it’s when the songwriting is viewed as a whole (and with patience) that it makes sense.  In fact, it makes sense enough to be one of the best albums of the decade.

2. The National – Boxer

This band is just getting better and better.  The National’s self-titled debut was a solid indie-pop album that took cues from the alt-country scene (Wilco, etc.).  A solid step forward with Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers was succeeded by Alligator, which had bloggers and (some) critics crying “classic.”  As with all of these records, Boxer is a great piece of work that takes some time to fully digest.  On the surface it’s a collection of quality, albeit simple, songs sung by a deep-voiced frontman.  Deeper probing reveals extraordinary drumming, subtly effective string arrangements, clever lyrics, and strong hooks.  In fact, Boxer is so full of hooks, each song will dance in your head and have you swearing it’s your favorite on the album.  It’s tasteful, melodic, and beautiful (just ask David Letterman), and the band’s strongest effort to date.  It’s not a niche or concept album, it’s not a hard-rocker, it’s not composed of a couple great songs and filler.  It’s simply a straightforward collection of no-frills songs.  Boxer is the kind of album you treasure for years to come.

3. Deerhunter – Cryptograms

The shoegaze scene is slowly making a comeback.  Unfortunately, a comeback for a scene comprised of just a few bands, a small fan base, and little critical attention requires little more than a few like-minded albums.  The genre’s trademark spacey, echoing ambience has showed up recently on records by groups like Asobi Seksu, Blonde Redhead, and A Place To Bury Strangers.  Last year’s self-titled effort by Norwegian band Serena Maneesh marked the finest release of shoegaze since the mid-90’s, paving the way for Deerhunter’s equally great Cryptograms.  This Georgian band is known for its jarring live performances, oftentimes featuring singer Bradford Cox in a Cobain-style dress.  The band’s recently negatively well-publicized blog also distracts from the true business at hand – the music.  Ambient instrumental soundscapes pioneered by bands like Slowdive appear on the first half of the album, in-between surprisingly aggressive rock songs.  As experimental as the first half is, it works surprisingly well with its concluding section that features poppier songs, closer to the style of, say, Ride.  Cryptograms is a bi-polar work, where two sides explore nearly opposite styles.  Yet it works as a sort of encompassing guide to shoegaze, showing the best of what the genre had to offer in its heyday.  In fact, Cryptograms ranks as not just one of the best albums of the shoegaze rebirth, but one of the best the genre has to offer at all.  Don’t let the band’s attention-grabbing antics fool you, their music actually deserves the spotlight.

4. Radiohead – In Rainbows

For their 7th album, Radiohead again blazed new trails.  This one, however, sounds familiar.  In Rainbows is the sound of a band realizing it doesn’t have to change the world.  Instead, Radiohead chose to write 10 pop songs.  The band’s subject matter used to regard technology, cloning, and the government.  In Rainbows focuses on relationships.  Relationships!  Of course the music shows the usual attention to detail, but nothing here is groundbreaking; the guitars sound like guitars.  Odds are, none of this will end up on American radio, but there is nothing inaccessible on In Rainbows (which may explain why they offered it for free on their Web site).  Instead, the beauty of each song shines through, making Radiohead seem more human than they ever have… This is for better and worse.  There are weak spots on this album.  The beauty is that the band doesn’t seem to care.  Kid A and O.K. Computer were perfect albums, and Hail to the Thief tried, but fell short of perfection.  In Rainbows sees its flaws, accepts them, and is better for it.  When compared to Radiohead’s previous output, In Rainbows is, of course, inferior.  But if any other band did it, it would be called genius.  Hence, it is.

5. Burial – Untrue

This faceless artist’s follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut came as a surprise late in 2007.  Untrue matches Burial in beauty, but adds some more of its own, all the while avoiding the predecessor’s rough patches.  It’s really good.  But what is it?  Pigeonholed into the dubstep genre, Burial is an act that transcends its categorization.  While there are reference points of dub (primarily in the beats), the electronic music also takes cues from ambient works, such as Fennesz’s Endless Summer.  It has a mist of reverb throughout, making the surprising bits that occur in each song stand out enough to raise hair.  The album also suggests a modern R&B influence, though it’s restricted to only the samples.  Untrue is as enigmatic as it’s artist.  It floats around at its own pace, buried under a mysterious background haze.  Though it’s addicting to listen to anywhere, the record seems designed to be listened to on a dark subway at night.  It’s eerie, yet beautiful… solitary.

6.     Panda Bear – Person Pitch

It’s hard to refrain from using The Beach Boys as a comparison when discussion Person Pitch.  Though Panda Bear’s album shares the same sunny disposition as the legendary surfers, the differences end there.  Person Pitch is a modern take on 60’s art rock, blending the usual instrumentation with electronics.  The songwriting is trippy, but Panda Bear makes it work, and it’s no wonder – he’s a songwriting force in the equally experimental Animal Collective.  Don’t let that scare you, though, Person Pitch is surprisingly accessible.

7.     Iron and Wine – The Shepard’s Dog

The best singer/songwriter record this year, The Shepard’s Dog is Iron and Wine’s finest album, due in no small part to the full band approach in its production.  The music puts you in its own world…  dusty roads and apple orchards during a cloudy day.  Lyrically, The Shepard’s Dog creates separate scenarios involving awkward situations and shady characters.  Approach this as a movie, with the music as the setting and the lyrics as the story.

8.     Okkervil River – The Stage Names

Sure, vocals on The Stage Names seem more than a little screamo-inspired.  That’s certainly something that takes some time to get past, but underneath the surface lays the best pure indie-pop album of the year that isn’t The National’s Boxer.  The arrangements are tightly woven around some great songwriting in this mix of acoustic ballads and distorted rock songs.  The Stage Names is both straightforward and wonderful.

9.     Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

This mishmash of glam rock and electronica centers around Of Montreal mastermind Keven Barnes’ reaction to his recent divorce.  The album is passionate and emotional, but also has a wicked sense of humor.  Yes, it’s easy to cringe as the singer references his mistakes, but the up-tempo cheeriness of the music keeps your head up as Barnes does the same.

10.  M.I.A. – Kala

It’s no wonder the singles from Kala have found their way to the likes of MTV.  Though popular radio (and television) is notorious for having poor taste and judgment, it features songs that are easy to grasp and relate to.  M.I.A. does just that with this hip-hop album.  It remains catchy and cool, while incorporating unconventional beats and samples that make it the most interesting radio-friendly release of the year.

11.  Beirut – The Flying Club Cup

Zach Condon’s fifth release in the past two years (second full-length) improves on last year’s Gulag Orkestar, one of the best debuts in a while.  Like its predecessor, The Flying Club Cup molds indie-pop with European gypsy-folk music to create something fresh and unique.  This one features Beirut’s tightest arrangements to date, making it the band’s best work so far.

12.  Lucky Soul – The Great Unwanted

As of right now, The Great Unwanted is only available in England, and that’s too bad.  It’s a great recreation of 50’s girl-fronted pop with smart arrangements and a sultry lead singer.  Definitely the most romantic album of the year.

13.  Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam

Though impenetrable upon first listen, Strawberry Jam is a warped take on pop music by freak-folkers Animal Collective.  It’s one of those records that’s inexplicably good: those who like it can’t really explain why.  Strawberry Jam can be addictive for those who can wrap their minds around it.

14.  Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Spoon may be the most consistent band of our time.  Each release has been a tasty slice of pop songcraft, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is no exception.  Though not quite as good as the masterful Gimme Fiction, this record is still a gem, anchored by Britt Daniel’s unmistakable voice.  Like all of their albums, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is indispensable.

15.  LCD Soundsystem – The Sound Of Silver

DFA producer James Murpy’s solo outfit, LCD Soundsystem, makes great, well-thought-out dance music in the vein of Remain in Light-era Talking Heads.  The Sound Of Silver is the third full-length album under the LCD Soundsystem moniker, and it’s Murphy’s best.  Each song is creative, witty, and utterly danceable.

16.  Caribou – Andorra

A low-key album, Andorra takes some time to digest… I initially hated it, due to its lack of thrills.  Each song is complex in the more-than-meets-the-eye way: Caribou makes you find the hooks.  When you do, they aren’t leaving your head anytime soon.

17.  Frog Eyes – Tears of the Valedictorian

Tears of the Valedictorian should be listened to like jazz.  The lack of repeated elements (i.e. choruses) makes it seem to run together in a haphazard kind of way.  Sneakily, Frog Eyes marks each song with certain elements, musical and lyrical, that make their way into your memory.  These elements flow like a 4th of July grand finale in Tears of the Valedictorian, making it one of the most satisfying 35 minutes of the year.

18.  Liars – Liars

Last year’s Drum’s Not Dead is one of the best albums of the decade.  With that in mind, it’s surprising that Liars’ self-titled release came with such little fanfare this year.  As a band that constantly reinvents itself, the fact that Liars is nothing like Liars have ever done should surprise no one.  It’s “pop music,” according to the band, but can be delightfully heavy and uneasy at times, all the while abounding in thrills.  After Drum’s Not Dead’s primal stomp, who would have guessed Liars to put out a Jesus and Mary Chain record?

19.  Deerhoof – Friend Opportunity

Veteran art-rockers Deerhoof released a fairly accessible record in Friend Opportunity, displaying their songwriting chops with several gems.  The album flows in its own herky-jerky style, and ends with possibly the saddest song the band has ever done.  Listening to Friend Opportunity is like riding a rollercoaster.

20.  Patrick Wolf – The Magic Position

British singer and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wolf made a name for himself with his strange persona on-stage and on-record.  The Magic Position smartly decides to stick to the basics, using Wolf’s classical background to create smartly arranged songs.  It builds tension and releases, oftentimes into exuberance.  At times, The Magic Position feels like pure emotion.

21.  Blonde Redhead – 23

23 is Blonde Redhead’s concept album.  Each song flows in a progression that calls to mind classics such as Radiohead’s O.K Computer.  While it fails to reach such heights, 23 succeeds in being a complete collection of wonderfully catchy, yet interesting, songs.  The title track is particularly beautiful.

22.  Justice – Cross

French electronic duo Justice made a name for themselves with their single, “D.A.N.C.E.”  The song is a blast – catchy and danceable.  However, it fails to represent the rest of the album known only as the cross symbol.  Each song intermingles with its predecessor and successor, creating a sort of 50-minute dance party with its own highs and lows.  Unlike “D.A.N.C.E.” Cross tends toward the darker side of the spectrum, going for intensity, as opposed to joy.  It works very well.

23.  The Clientele – God Save The Clientele

Gloomy Brits The Clientele seem to have remade themselves as optimists for God Save The Clientele.  Instead of rainy Byrds-derived pop, this album is sunny Byrds-derived pop.  Despite this surprisingly major change, God Save The Clientele lacks none of the beauty found on the band’s previous efforts.  In fact, the band may have gotten better during the changing process.

24.  A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Scribble Mural Comic Journal

The prettiest album of the year, Scribble Mural Comic Journal is the year’s second best shoegaze record.  Though it’s not Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, A Sunny Day In Glasgow doesn’t try to be essential.  Instead, its musical beauty provides a gentle background for everyday activities when the listener doesn’t want a life-change.  There is something to be said for that sort of thing.

25.  Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha

Chicago violinist/singer/songwriter/guitarist/etc. Andrew Bird has been getting attention recently for his wonderful work, and Armchair Apocrypha does nothing to break this high standard.

26.  Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala

Night Falls Over Kortedala is a perfect example of the sort of charming indie-pop coming out of Sweden these days.

27.  Blitzen Trapper – Wild Mountain Nation

“Slacker” music in the vein of Beck and Pavement, Wild Mountain Nation is a mix of country, rock, and good humor.  It’s the kind of record that will put any listener into a good mood.

28.  Les Savy Fav – Let’s Stay Friends

The hard-rocking Les Savy Fav’s first record in a while, Let’s Stay Friends drives with force and moves listeners’ feet, all the while drawing smiles at the band’s sense of humor.

29.  !!! – Myth Takes

!!! makes up-tempo dance rock that combines electronics and “normal” instrumentation.  Myth Takes is their best effort yet.

30.  Interpol – Our Love To Admire

Interpol’s third album, Our Love To Admire, deftly combines the artsy atmosphere of their classic debut Turn on the Bright Lights with the pop-rock sensibility of their second album, Antics.  Our Love To Admire also sits in-between in quality, but that’s not a bad thing, considering how good those albums are.

31.  The Veils – Nux Vomica

An album that progresses from an angry beginning to a reconciled end, Nux Vomica is a great singer-songwriter album led by Finn Andrews’ ferocious voice and electric guitar.

32.  The Besnard Lakes – The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse

The Besnard Lakes take the trendy “Montreal sound” and add in progressive elements and high emotions to great impact on their second album, …Are The Dark Horse.  It’s epic, dense, and engaging.

33.  Dungen – Tio Bitar

Though Tio Bitar doesn’t live up to the promise of its predecessor, Ta Det Lugnt, that’s an impossible standard to hold it to, anyway.  It’s still psych-folk sung in Swedish, and yes, it’s still brilliant.

34.  White Rabbits – Fort Nightly

This is a band with a wide arrange of influences, it seems, but they use them all tastefully to create the most artistic take on the “New York sound” yet.  Think The Walkmen with far-reaching instrumentals and nonsensical lyrics.

35.  The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters

Another album featuring the old/new shoegaze sound, Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters is an addictive slice of solid songcraft.  It also happens to feature a lead singer with the most outrageous Scottish accent this side of Groundskeeper Willy.  Yes, it may border on guilty pleasure territory, but this record actually has much more to it than just its face value.  Worth listening to and worth loving.

36.  The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

Great electronic background music, the From Here We Go Sublime is reminiscent of the best aspects of the Fennesz classic, Endless Summer in both composition and quality.

37.  Handsome Furs – Plague Park

This is another Wolf Parade affiliated album, though it doesn’t involve Spencer Krug.  Instead, it features Dan Boekner, the other songwriter from the acclaimed band.  In many ways, it seems Boekner’s prolific writing partner has rubbed off on him.  In other ways, his pop songcraft seems to be the antithesis to Sunset Rubdown.  Plague Park is a solid album with great pop songs from beginning to end.

38.  Josh Ritter – The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

A very good offering from the unheralded singer/songwriter.

39.  The New Pornographers – Challengers

The New Pornographers is an indie supergroup that has been putting out quality albums for its three releases prior to Challengers.  This album is no different – it’s full of fun, catchy tunes that make you smile and think.

40.  The Go! Team – Proof Of Youth

This English band’s previous album, Thunder Lightning Strike introduced cheerleaders, samples, and hopscotch to the indie scene and Proof Of Youth continues with the format.  The most major change here would be a higher production value, but Proof Of Youth also features the band’s strongest song to date, “Grip Like A Vice.”  This is energetic, up-tempo music that will most certainly bring a smile to your face.

41.  The Good The Bad And The Queen – The Good The Bad And The Queen

The Good The Bad And The Queen is a band, an album, and a song.  As a band, it’s led by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorrilaz.  It also features former members of The Clash and The Verve, and the legendary Tony Allen on the drums.  Tastemaking producer Dangermouse was at the helm of the recordings, and all of the talent created something entirely different than it would seem – a smart, catchy album that mysteriously floats at its own pace, weaving songs about England’s current political climate.  It doesn’t feature any of the ego-stroking normally associated with supergroups.  Instead, it’s tastefully subdued, letting the listener approach it on whichever level they so choose.

42.  The Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Of course, The Arcade Fire couldn’t duplicate 2005’s Funeral, so they didn’t even try.  Instead, they headed in a different direction with Neon Bible.  It rocks harder than its predecessor and is more lyrically pointed.  It’s almost draining to listen to as a whole, but very high in quality and a solid follow-up to one of the best albums of the decade.

43.  Menomena – Friend And Foe

Because of its early 2007 release, Friend And Foe was a front-runner as a top album for a long time.  It’s epic ambitions are nearly realized, due to the record’s cohesive nature.  It’s quirky, yet charming and utterly listenable.

44.  The White Stripes – Icky Thump

This band’s first three albums were wonderful, but Get Behind Me Satan, their latest, seemed to suggest a drop-off for the band.  Luckily, The White Stripes seem to have gotten back on track with Icky Thump, a rock album with attitude, a sense of humor, and songs of very high quality.

45.  Feist – The Reminder

One of the favorites from Canada’s Arts and Crafts label, Feist hit the mark with The Reminder, a collection of great, nearly timeless, pop songs.

46.  The Shins – Wincing The Night Away

The Shins third album, Wincing The Night Away, travels in a different direction than the near-perfect pop-rock of Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow.  Here, the band decides to show off its creative side, with interestingly manufactured beats, production, and sounds.  Though not all of it succeeds (most does, however), Wincing The Night Away succeeds because The Shins never forgot their hallmark – great songwriting.

47.  A Place To Bury Strangers – A Place To Bury Strangers

Yet another revisit to the shoegaze scene, A Place To Bury Strangers travels all the way back to the 80’s for inspiration.  The genre’s forefathers, The Jesus and Mary Chain, may directly inspire the self-titled album but A Place To Bury Strangers also updates their sound.  It’s not an extremely relevant album, just an extremely good one.

48.  Battles – Mirrored

An instrumental math rock album, Mirrored may be one of the best, if not the best, albums of the year from a musical standpoint.  The skill by the musicians here is apparent, but the songs are also filled with hooks – a trait not always found in the instrumental post rock genre.

49.  Kathy Diamond – Miss Diamond To You

Miss Diamond To You is an electronic pop album that displays solid musical chops and an attitude.  It’s one of those records that’s simply a lot of fun to listen to.

50.  Akron/Family – Love is Simple

One of the best freak-folk bands around, Akron/Family is as weird as ever on their latest release, Love Is Simple, but that’s not a bad thing.  They play to their strengths, all of which are apparent on this record.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love this list. We share very similar tastes in music.