This was something else altogether. I can’t think of a period in years that has produced as much good music as the twelve months of 2007 did. I mean, I’ve got 16 albums here, and that is only because I’ve only allocated a few hours to write this. I probably could’ve gone past 25. I reasonably could’ve made it to 50. That’s nearly a great album for every week of this year. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Do you know how much that helped this year? Well, here are my favorites.
(and a quick note- my webspace is being testy, and so while this is an MP3 blog and i’d love to give you samples of each album so you can hear for yourself, i’m going to post links to each bands’ mypsace or label page for listening purposes)
16. Jesu- Conqueror (Hydra Head) [MYSPACE]
Metal has never really worked with me. I love the weirdness of Dillinger Escape Plan and treasure the Blues (both -Cheer and -Oyster Cult), but I’ve never really made it past those three. And then, in an album I suppose isn’t really metal at all, Jesu bandleader Justin Broadrick managed to make the proudest, slowest, most cathartic loud album that I keep going back to. On track after track, Broadrick slams layer upon layer of fuzzed out guitars, tree toppling drums, and not a whole lot else (maybe there are some keyboards in the mix? this album has knocked out a significant portion of my hearing range) into, truly 8 times the same striking song. There is little to no variation on the album, and I don’t think I could pick out any of the individual tracks out of a police lineup, but somehow the album is so sure of itself and its goals that none of that matters, even a bit. If you’ve got a sound as intense as Conqueror carries, then noone is looking for the acoustic ballad or
15. A Band of Bees- Octopus (Astralwerks) [MYSPACE]
So that’s all it took. A Band of Bees used to be a slightly kitschy, but unbelievably fun 60s retro rock group, one whose unabashed joy allowed to recreate the Hot Potato and sing odes to go karts. On their previous album, Free The Bees, even the menacing songs sounded like they were delivered with a smirk, but somehow, despite being an absurdly fun listening experience, the album felt insubstantial and light. On their newest album, Octopus, the group replicated everything that was great about Free The Bees, and then found their trump card: a new producer. Every track on octopus sounds like it emerged directly from the tinny real to real of Studio One. The drums are bigger, and you can feel each time the bass player’s finger strum a string. Songwriting was never the issue for A Band of Bees, and the proof is all over this album, from the slow fizz of “Listening Man” to Byrds-y first single “Who Knows What The Question Is?”. But on Octopus, the band got the exact kind of minute aesthetic makeover they needed to turn them from a really, really good joke to a really, really good band.
14. Bishop Allen- The Broken String (Dead Oceans) [MYSPACE]
Imagine the most glazed over, hungover, boiled over day you’ve had. The worst day at work, the worst grade on a paper you had been proud of, the worst commute, the biggest fight. I can’t say for sure that Bishop Allen will make everything ok, but I can say they’ll try as hard as they can. “The Broken String” is an album filled with beautiful, hopeful melodies. It’s a really genuine message written on the inside of a tossed off hallmark get well card. Its songs are filled with the delicacy of the ukulele which shows up on highlight “Click Click Click” or the sheer joy of the strings section in “Like Castanets.” And unlike a lot of other groups who want nothing more than to put a smile on your face, the often narrative lyrics of Bishop Allen are smart, small scale, and lifelike. Stories of finding trash on the curb or taking the bus or having monsturous hangovers. Up until now, Bishop Allen have been pegged as an indie band with a gimmick (the songs on this album are culled mostly from the EPs they released once a month every month of 2006) and an identity crisis. At least in my mind, The Broken String signals the arrival of Bishop Allen. And what a warm welcome it is. (this album gets a few points off because its second half drags a little bit. But, really, a minor complaint.)
13. Low- Drums and Guns (Sub Pop) [MYSPACE]
Maybe it’s because I could never quite divorce the beauty of Low’s songs from their principle songwriters’ (Married couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker) Mormon faith, but the group’s songs always sounded prayer-like to me. Even as their sound was fleshed out on albums like “Trust” and “The Great Destroyer,” the wider ranging instrumentation never detracted from the ethereal feeling, eternally brushed drums and harmony vocals that made each track its own paean. And then something happened; I’m certainly not sure what, but Drums and Guns, while quieter and sparser than 2005’s The Great Destroyer is the single most unsettling album released this year and one I didn’t see coming from three quiet middle aged people from Duluth. Things are off-putting from the first track, “Pretty People” where Sparhawk taunts that the poets, the liars, and even the titular characters are “all gonna die.” Lyrically, this is the weakest I’ve ever heard Low (I suppose anger just isn’t their strong suit), but tracks like the frigid “Belarus,” the confounding poppy “Hatchet” and the bitter, beautiful and effective “Breaker” create an unbelievably difficult, almost stifling atmosphere throughout Drums and Guns. Some of the songs might initially appear to be mere mood-pieces, underdeveloped songs with 3 recurring chords and 4 lines of lyrics. Listen again and each song reveals itself, sometimes in an demanding, unapologetically difficult fashion. If every previous Low album was filled with prayers, maybe “Drums and Guns” is the one where the realized there was no answer coming.
12. The Arcade Fire- Neon Bible (Merge) [MYSPACE]
Let’s be honest with ourselves; with the exception of the new Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah, album, this was the meteor impact of the indie world this past year. And, lets be honest again, unless that drummer who plays the big ol’ drum had come to your house and played along with the record, there is absolutely nothing that the band could have done to meet expectations. This isn’t a big buildup to a reversal (EG “…until they managed to release THE BEST ALBUM IN RECORDED MUSIC!!!!!”), Neon Bible is by no means entirely successful, and it holds together extremely poorly as an album. The horror movie organ, the fact that they let Regine sing on the awful “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” a track about a thousandth as good as “In The Back Seat,” and the absolutely unforgivably bad closer “My Body Is A Cage” are just some of the reasons this album should be a disaster. (oh wait, there’s that big build up and then reversal. Right after this parenthetical). And yet when the album hits, Neon Bible is the sound of a band working furiously, passionately. Songs like “Keep the Car Running” sound just as enlivening and grandiose as any of the tracks from their first album “Funeral,” and yet there is never a sense of a retread of musical ground. Neon Bible is an album where a band stumbles, but rarely has a failure sounded so powerful or important as this one.
11. Spoon- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge) [MYSPACE]
I remember in 1996 when Pearl Jam’s No Code came out, Rolling Stone’s year end reader’s poll list had an interesting feature. No Code was both the third favorite album of the year, and the third least favorite album of the year. It was a polarizing album, sure, and I assumed that readership was just split, some loving the album, some thinking it garbgage. But for at least a few of the readers who has submitted their votes, the relationship with Pearl Jam at that point could have been more complex. And so Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga finds its way both onto my biggest disappointments of the year list, and my best albums of the year list. I still believe that the album show the group stuck in a holding pattern, and that any attempts to really try something different (“The Ghost of You Lingers,” “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case”) come off as underdeveloped sound experiments. And yet, there are at least three of the single most danceable and genius Spoon songs ever written on Ga5. “Don’t You Evah” is just unbelievably soulful, “The Underdog” is self assured and brilliant, “You’ve Got Yr Cherry Bomb” is…well…unbelievably soulful, again, and the list goes on. Sure, the album is stagnant, but stagnancy has never sounded quite so good.
10. Elvis Perkins- Ash Wednesday (XL) [MYSPACE]
***I realize this album was self released last year, but I forgot to put it on my best of list then, and because it saw an official label release this year, I don’t feel like I’m cheating too much***
This one is on here because Elvis Perkins will create a masterpiece at some point in his career. His voice begs, with some indefinable accent and slight warble, for better songs than the downbeat, lyrically brilliant but musically mundane offerings he has here. Ash Wednesday is on this list because the best tracks, “While You Were Sleeping,” “All Night Without Love” “It’s Only Me” “May Day” and “Ash Wednesday” are already full on works that I can tell transcend time and place, could easily have been opening up for Dylan in ’69, played on the back of a double decker coming out of an early New Order gig, or even lulling two slumming grungeheads to sleep on a rainy spring in Seattle. Perkins has everything he needs to make it not just big, not just huge, but to make it important. Ash Wednesday is a gold plated foot in the door. As De La fatefully stated, “Stakes is high.”
9. !!!- Myth Takes (Warp) [MYSPACE]
Up until Myth Takes, !!!! never really seemed to care about the party people on the dance floor. While they had admittedly made some of the most propulsive, epic dance music of the first years of our new millennium (the uncontrollable “Me and Guiliani Down By The Schoolyard (A True Story)”), the group was just as willing to sabotage their most danceable songs with the recorded breakdowns of singer Nic Offer (see the entirety of their last full length, the absolutely shambolic, “Louden Up Now”). If you ask me, its because the group was always twice as smart as people gave them credit for. They wanted people to dance, but they didn’t want dancing to replace thought. Like the Talking Heads this was a band who are struggling with the question of how to dance when the world is going up in flames? Well, one listen to Myth Takes shows exactly how. Forgoing the political almost entirely (the brief title track doesn’t even delve that deeply, and “All My Heroes are Weirdoes” could be viewed as the dumbest manifesto the band has ever attempted), the band pick up melody, guest vocalist [Shannon Funchess (thanks, wikipedia) who carries the mind-blowing “Heart of Hearts”], and a whole lot of spunk. Sure, politics can come later, but on this album !!! remembers that sometimes the reason you go out to dance floor is to avoid the news outside.
8. Shannon Wright- Let in the Light (Touch and Go) [MYSPACE]
Shannon Wright has spent her entire career drowning in pseudonyms. Either she was Liz Phair-light on her solo debut “Flightsafety,” or she was a crasser and more furious PJ Harvey on later albums like “Maps of Tacit.” And then, at the exact moment when only a few people were left who still remembered how great Wright was in her own, she released an album absolutely noone saw coming. After her loudest and most abrasive album, 2004’s “Over The Sun,” Wright retreats into something entirely different. A mostly piano lead album, both spry and sad, more personal lyrically than any of her other recent releases, “Let in the Light” survives on a quiet, almost hidden sense of spite that runs throughout the restrained, beautifully orchestrated songs. Evidence of her collaboration with French composer Yann Tiersen is evident on like the unsettling “You Baffle Me” and “St. Pete” shows how Wright’s guitar playing works just as well turned from 11 down to a more manageable 6 or 7. But it is the feeling of coldness and betrayal that finally reaches the surface in the absolutely perfect last track “Everybody’s Got Their Own Part To Play” that makes this album such an engaging listen. Reasonably, Wright will never occupy the public’s upper echelon of female singer songwriters with Cat Power, PJ Harvey, but for those whose ears are open, she reveals a genius uniquely her own on “Let in The Light.”
7. The Mekons- Natural (Touch and Go) [MYSPACE]
I don’t especially picture Mekons principles Jon Langford and Sally Timms slipping on internal frame packs and going off in the woods for a few weeks to find themselves, and then emerging weeks later with “Natural.” I think that they chose quiet acoustics, hand percussion, and thumb pianos because with the Mekons, the music is half the message. This isn’t an album that rages with the best of their punk material, it is one that saunters through the rubble of two months ago’s newspaper for the stories we were too depressed to read at the time. It is filled with darkness and doubt (the allegorical blood sacrifice of “Give Me Wine or Money” and opener “Dark Dark Dark”) with Armageddon stories (the positively joyous “Cockermouth”), and even has the mandatory “old band rants against technology” song (“Zero’s and One’s” which could be much, much worse than it is). Mostly, though, it is an album about looking around, not necessarily about looking within. There is a sense of unavoidable doom that pervades this album, a feeling common among the survivors of the first generation punk scene, and this inevitability doesn’t lend itself to calls to arms. It points towards more sobering reflection. But the albums best tracks, like “Cockermouth,” offer all that doom and gloom with a bit of advice, who can say who will be left standing tomorrow; we’ve got to dance tonight.
6. The Weakerthans- Reunion Tour (-Anti) [MYSPACE]
What’s the worst thing about being a music addict? When the band you love, the band you keep time off of, the only band you can really label your favorite releases a new album, and it is good, nothing less and nothing more. Because with a favorite act, you’re constantly raising the bar, raising it so high you can’t even see where it stands, and then when a band releases something good, but not great, its like the air gets knocked out of you just as your starting to brag to friends about exactly why this band matters more than any other. And let me be entirely clear: Reunion Tour is nothing if not a good album. There are moments of eyeshutting beauty (the album’s near perfect last four tracks, but especially the duo of “Sun In An Empty Room” and “Night Windows” both of which were inspired by Edward Hopper paintings) and there are moments where I’d recommend the skip button on the first go around (the boring and obvious “Relative Surplus Value,” and the distant and stupidly inaccessible “Elegy for Gump Wesley”). But mostly and most terrifyingly on this good album filled with mostly great songs, there is a fear that maybe John K Samson, singer and lyricist might have lost what so regularly has the capacity to really move me. Sure, he can still pen lines of poetry like “Sun In An Empty Room’s,” “The hands that we nearly hold with pennies for the GST, the shoulders we lean our shoulders into on the subway, mutter an apology.” Or, in “Virtute the Cat Explains her Departure,” the brilliance of this description of a man worried sick for the safety of an album gone from home: “For a while I heard you missing steps in the street, and your anger, pleading in an uncertain key, singing the sound that you found for me.” He can still write beautiful images, but on many of those groups of images never build to anything on Reunion Tour. The title track never gets beyond a group of Polaroids of an aging rock band on a reunion tour. “Tournament of Hearts” is about curling, but never moves past a simple story of a man who can’t go home to his wife. “Bigfoot!” is a song about belief, seemingly, but more than anything it’s a description of a tundra, of loneliness. There seems to be no real reflection in Samson’s story-songs on Reunion Tour, and while the beauty is present on “Reunion Tour”, there is something to one die hard fan that feels naggingly empty about it here.
5. Dalek- Abandoned Language (Ipepac Recordings) [MYSPACE]
Let me tell you, it is a fucked up world when a city celebrates the fact that there were only 98 homicides in its limits in the past year. It gets worse when that city is one as confused and small as Newark, whose homicide rate dropped 9 from a record high 107 in 2006, the year Dalek were recording Abandoned Language. And while the volume may have dropped from their previous full length “Absence,” there is absolutely nothing but rage all over Abandoned Language. Like every other Dalek album, this is not a disc filled with hip hop party jamz. It is what happens when the party gets busted by a stray bullet, when all that is left is a single voice shouting over the industrial dinge and clatter of the death of a city. There are some interesting sonic concessions on Language, the discordant free jazz on “Isolated Stare” the group vocals on “Tarnished,” the melody on the most accessible track on the album, the aptly titled “Subversive Script,” but really all it comes down to is exactly how tied this group is to their home and the troubles of that home, and how absolutely stunning their latest call to arms is.
4. Parts and Labor- Mapmaker (Brah/Jagjaguwar) [MYSPACE]
“Gabe, I’m so tired of 4/4 time.” she said while some generic guitar solo pounded out whatever energy was left in the last stretch of her driving me home. How am I going to get back to Pittsburgh on this? Tommorow, I burn that girl a copy of Mapmaker, a savior from ho-strum rock and roll. This is what happens when the record label owened rock and roll making robots rise up and rebel. This is the joyous sound of technology shattering, of drums falling down flights of stairs and collapsing and then standing up, bloodied and disoriented and starting to play again, of singers screaming the location of the nearest fire exit with every blood vessel in their bodies snapping, of guitars brought so close to breaking they can’t do anything but play something beautiful instead. “Brighter Days” mourns the loss of friends and its emotional turmoil boils over from the air bubble of noise that starts the song, and “Long Way Down” could and should be covered by U2, immediately. Mapmaker is dance music for rioters, it is montage music for the most ludicrously sad action movie you’ve ever seen. This, more than anything else, is very, very exciting music.
3. Andrew Bird- Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum) [MYSPACE]
There’s something about a man who can start an epic song about any individual’s culpability living in a country that is constantly pushing people in a million directions, a song that includes a brilliant and well spun metaphor about a child’s discovery of the game Operation, with a whistling solo. Andrew Bird wrote and perfoms the song, called “Darkmatter,” and it’s one of the best on an altogether excellent new album. The weight of the metaphor epic and the levity of the whistling whistling are the two sides of Bird, which reveal themselves in equal proportion on Armchair Apocrypha”. And while it certainly isn’t as immediate as his last album, “The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” Bird’s newest disc is almost certainly grander in scope. The seven minute “Armchairs” languidly builds to a peak worthy of old broadway musicals. Even the “single,” the upbeat “Heretics” is dense and hesitant, almost as though Bird would rather have people like it and listen to what it says than LOVE it but just hum along. I have no doubt that Andrew Bird will not make a bad record at any point soon in his career, I don’t think he is capable of it, and yet even though it is expected, an album this magnificent is still somehow a surprise.
2. The National- Boxer (Beggars) [MYSPACE]
People forget that, after all the expensive haircuts and blogposts and lyrics that seem built for and out of New York City and everything else that would suggest otherwise, The National are still a band that have their roots in the Midwestern city of Cincinnati. This is important because Boxer is both unbelievably urban, urban in the same indescribable way as Leonard Cohen’s songs, built for rainy days under tall buildings are moments when brushing past someone on the subway is the biggest moment of contact for the day, and it is also unbelievably quiet and restless in a way that harkens back to the region the band originates from. On this album, the National never stray far from their chosen topic of the relationships we all live in, but never before has their album had such a mature arc. Starting off with the seemingly hopeful “Fake Empire” the album builds to the anti-climax of “Start a War” where the couple falls apart, and then spends the rest of its length down on its knees, begging for them to work it out. I don’t think that in recent memory I’ve heard something as movingly defeated as “Gospel,” the album’s closing track. When the words “let me come over, I can waste your time” are mumbled in the chorus, there is nothing there but pure begging. I had a conversation with a friend that talked about exactly how what a draining experience it is to sit down and listen to Boxer in its entirety. I agree entirely, yet it is a reflection of the album’s greatness that I can’t stop myself from going right back to the first track as its last notes sound.
1. The Harlem Shakes- Burning Birthdays EP (Self Released) [MYSPACE]
I am so very very close to ignoring the fact that a lot of bloggers and people with better things to do than blog have dismissed bands like The Harlem Shakes and Vampire Weekend as “prep rock.” I don’t want to justify the ludicrous existence of such a term, so I’ll quickly repond by saying 1) these guys happened to go to ivy league schools. Big deal. They don’t have butlers playing their instruments for them and 2) Aren’t we a little old for Maximum RockNRoll at this point? No?
And now we get to my favorite release of this truly excellent year for music. And this album, my friends, is a joy to write about, mostly because its such an overwhelmingly fun release to listen to. The reasons I love this album, which features absolutely no element not present on many other albums on this list, is not as much because of the songs (they’re great), the instrumentalists (also, great) or the writing (once again, superb). It’s because the songs exude all the energy of late teenage years and summer nights and cutting class. It is because each of the 5 tracks on this album sound like they were nailed on their first take, with the band hi-fiving eachother in between each song and then immediately continuing. Songs fall apart on this album, at the 1:15 mark of the yearning “Red Right Hand” and I imagine each member of the band jumping up in the air and doing flying V kicks at the same time right before things pick up again. The horns on opener Carpetbaggers don’t feel the least bit appropriated from 60’s, Black R and B, they feel loving resurrected and the song they are built around is an anthem. Although calling it anthemic is redundant; every track on here, from the paranoid “Sickos” to the whistful “Old Flames” is an anthem. There was a time in my life when Saves the Day’s “Through Being Cool” was my life and blood, not because it was a great album (sometimes, though, it is) but because it so perfectly described what I was feeling at that point in my life. Burning Birthdays is equally epochal for me, but unlike the Saves the Day album, this one is a stone cold 5 track masterpiece. You’ve got me by the throat, guys. Now how about a full length?
So there you have it, 2007 in a nutshell. in 2008, starting next week, i’m going to try to update this blog once a week, on mondays, sometime in the morning. hopefully some of you will stick around.