Thursday, December 20, 2007

Best Albums of 2007: 5-1

5. M.I.A. - Kala
I didn’t expect this. Arular was fantastic and all, but every single freaking song on this album is a gangbuster ready to make the dance floor move. Where did those beats come from? Before, the caged beats sounded futuristic and threatening, and now they sound downright earth shattering. And instead of some chanting she’s crafted some perfect songs.

I still, honestly, can’t pin down exactly what moves me about her. Her tone-deaf delivery isn’t exactly revelatory, and while her lyrics are interesting, they aren’t poetry. And her politics, like nearly everyone has mentioned, are rather disturbing. This isn’t the power-of-the-people vibe, this is radical and dangerous. I wouldn’t mess with her. Sure, it could be a huge facade that she’s put on to sound more dangerous. But I don’t buy it. I’m scared of her. Honestly, if I saw her on the street I’d walk the other way. God knows what she’d do to me. Ask for an autograph? Forget about it.

Perhaps that’s the attraction...that and the 12 or so unbelievable singles piled up here.

4. Rufus Wainwright - Release the Stars
I think I’m the only person in the world that loved this album. I know for a fact I’m the only person in Columbus, Ohio who knew the words to all the new songs. When I saw him this fall I belted every song, and everyone looked around like they had no idea what was going on. I remember seeing Rufus in New York during his Want II and just feeling completely surrounded by love. And there I sat in the midwest with a bunch of people that didn’t care.

Why did I care? Because he delivered an album of romantic gems set to completely over the top productions that swept me up in a fever of bittersweet nostalgia (the best possible kind). Why doesn’t any one else care?

I know that answer, too. The album is a little campy, bloated, and not nearly as strong as his first two albums. Sure, I’m forgiving. I gave the Smashing Pumpkins nearly four albums before I jumped ship. But I have jumped ship, and am now privy to anything Rufus wants to do. Luckily he’s not bitter or jaded, and is making romantic albums full of tortured lovers, forbidden loves, and that voice to carry it all.

3. Radiohead - In Rainbows
This is a special album, and I think we all know that. There was no where to go after Hail to the Thief, an album that saw Radiohead reaching further and further into the depths of digital hell---perhaps I’m not the right person to talk about this. I was never a fan of that album, which I saw as stripping Radiohead of all their power.

There were hints that things might change, specifically the wondrous live version of “Arpeggi”. But I could never have anticipated an album of such warmth. In fact, I was expecting more drum machines, especially after a typically glum Thom Yorke solo album. It’s certainly not a happy album, but it feels full-bodied and real, something that you can’t really say about a Radiohead album since the Bends.

But this is no retread and never have they taken their minimalist tendencies so far. If Kyle is right and this is their last album, I can’t imagine a more fitting way to go.

2. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Last New Years I spent with Austin getting mad drunk and hanging out with people I had no right to be around. It was some kind of Ivy League party and I had just drunk a bottle or two of champagne and was acting obnoxious. I spilt hot wax all over my one leg, spent 30 minutes in the bathroom trying to clean it off, and then I found the iPod. They had this meticulously sequenced playlist which I decided had to go. In a room of about 50 people I’d never met before, i started picking every song. I think i was doing well until I decided to play Spoon “I Turn My Camera On”. Everyone froze and looked at me. I got bitched out by some girl (who Abby threatened to fight), and left in a semi-disgrace. Spoon were ruined for me. I was a little embarrassed, but just mostly ashamed. I had a great time that night, but Spoon were always going to be the band that tainted the evening.

I had no interest in Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga when it came out. When I finally did get around to listening to it, I wasn’t much impressed outside of “Cherrybomb”, thinking it stale and too simplistic. I just didn’t want to be reminded every day of my idiocy. And then slowly but surely I got in. First it was “Underdog”, then “Finer Feeling”, and then “Don’t You Evah”, and before I knew it the album was on repeat for the whole summer.

But it wasn’t until I got madly obsesed with “Japanese Cigarette Case” that I realized I was on to something truly unique. Here was a song with one verse repeated occasionally, with a spanish guitar solo, and then a riff. And yet it was one of the most engaging songs I’d heard in ages. How did they do this, how can you make such simple things say so much?

So, it’s been my year of Spoon. From disgraced figures into heroes . Who knew?

1. Panda Bear - Person Pitch
One of the stranger experiences in life is when I happen to fall asleep watching a movie I’ve seen many times before. I know the plot, know the characters, but in the haze of sleep these events line up to create a completely new experience. Strange scenes that never existed before appear, and characters start breaking from the script. None of it ever makes sense, but this new world is beautiful and strange. I’m always curious to see where it goes, before I drift off again.

I’ve never heard an album as completely bewitching and dreamlike as this one, and never one that reminded me of this phenomenon. Each time I sneak in it feels like a completely new experience, one that can never be replicated. Because there are no verses, no choruses, just waves of samples looping around itself, there is no entry point except the beginning. If you drop in the middle it’s disorienting and alarming, but always beautiful and often sublime.

The album will always be about the random, the unexpected, the new turns I didn’t know existed. It will be me rambling around Brooklyn half awake with headphones through the trees back to my old apartment at a late hour. It will always be the unknown, and that’s why I can’t stop listening to it on repeat waiting for unexpected to happen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Best Albums of 2007: 10-6

10. Kanye West - Graduation
I understand it. I was ready to ditch the Kanye bus, too, until he dropped a party animal with exactly one bad track (Drunk and Hot Girls). No skits, no sappy ballads with Brandy, and at least three phenomenal end of the year chart toppers (Stronger, Good Life, Flashing Lights) that equal anything he’s put out before. I was ready to hate. I am still not impressed with his flow. But I am impressed with an album loaded hits that makes the stunning Late Registration look slightly stale.

It all has to do with Kanye the producer, who took back control and played it exactly the way he wanted to. Late Registration felt like the edges were smoothed over, but Graduation hits hard and often with miraculous sounds that are innovative and quirky.

I’ll never trade his rhymes for Hova’s, but in a year that saw American Gangster look back to past strengths, Kanye looked straight ahead and put together a staggering modern American hip hop record.
9. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
This is it. I remembering anticipating his first album with bated breath, hoping that I’d have some spark of light to equal his insanely great singles (Beat Connection, Yeah (Crass), Losing My Edge). It was a fine, fine record, but nothing even came close. What I was really waiting for was this stunning record, where every single song could be the best song he’s ever written.

That’s no joke. There’s not even one remotely weak track here. There are the crass, slightly goofy tracks (North America Scum, Us V Them) that equal the good times of his initial success, and then there is impeccable dance rock (All My Friends, Someone Great). As inspiring as those songs are, I prefer the jackass “Losing My Edge” LCD Soundsystem, and in that respect, didn’t listen to this album as much as I should have.

But I recognize its genius, and wish the album meant more to me. Perhaps, it feels too much like 2005. Did he miss his big chance? According to most music blogs, he didn’t. And I still have years to fully dissect what's going on here, which I'm more than happy to do.

8. Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala
E-Mail from Austin Diaz, December 8th 2005: “All of you need to get in touch with me as soon as you can over IM...I’ve been listening to the Jens Lekman album...and I’m really trying to not just buy into Pitchfork hype but this album is amazing. As Duncan commented, it sounds “Christmas-y” which it does and like Morrisey had a torrent love affair with Sea-Change-era Beck.”

This was right before our big year end list two years ago, and I had absolutely no time. I was juggling 10 new albums, trying to figure out what exactly I had missed and what was worth skipping. So I didn’t even give it a try.

E-Mail from Blake Royer, December 9th 2005: “I think of the affair as less torrential and more of a gentle rainstorm, with tender fucking, melodramatic role-playing, kinky balloons and other twee props.”

And I STILL didn’t download it. What was I waiting for? Musical recommendations don’t come much better than that.

It wasn’t until this wonderful and charming record that I finally got around to what I as supposed to already know. Jens Lekman is a man of many talents, including some impressive sampling skills, but it’s his warm story telling that keeps me around. Like just about everyone else in humanity, it was “Nina” that sold me. Was I the only one that wished I were in that situation, pretending to be the fiance to a lesbian? How precious is that?

7. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
Blake said to keep trying, but it was taking a long time. I really loved Sung Tongs, and had liked Feels at first, even if I never listened to it after the 2006 list where I threw it in the top 10. I missed the more subdued feel of Sung Tongs, and was growing very weary of the bursts of screaming. I was tired of having to try so hard to like an album. Was I getting too old for this? Of course I wasn’t, I told myself, so I listened to it again and again and again...

Then one day I turned on “For Reverend Green” and realized it was the greatest fucking song I’d heard all year. I don’t mean this lightly. Animal Collective were always a band I wanted to like more than I did. Perhaps it’s the cool factor, the want to be more obscure, but I don’t have to pretend any more. All of sudden the heavens opened up and this absolutely perfect song appeared to me. And I didn’t have to do anything except adore it. That was easy.

And quickly the rest of the album fell in the line. “Peacebone” and “Fireworks” were next, and then I was humming “#1” like it was a pop hit. Albums do take time, but they need to inhabit your day and not sit on the shelf looking pretty. This is the first time Animal Collective jumped in the game and played.
6. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
Indie rock kids have been trying for years to sound like Bruce Springsteen. It’s cute. But no one ever figured out that there has to be something to fight for, some strife to get over. It’s not about rocking with abandon, it’s about breaking away, cutting your loses, and starting over, even if that’s an impossibility. Arcade Fire are the first band to actually come close. It’s no accident that he invited them on stage to sing “Keep the Cars Running”, this is mimicry on the highest level.

But it’s still mimicry, and that’s the only reason this album doesn’t have the dark intricacies and rambling confusion of their fantastic debut. This album is streamlined, obvious, and, at times, rather clumsy. The lyrics are weighty and overbearing. But their heart is there, and the rage they conjure up is real.

Ironically, my favorite songs are the ones that stray furthest from the Funeral multi-suite template. (Antichrist Television Blues) is straight verse chorus the whole way through, yet they manage to weave a twisted tale of money, god, and power into one of the catchiest 5 minutes in 2007. The title track is a simple 2 minute lullaby played as quietly as 7 talented musicians possibly can. It's theses new fantastic directions that get me the most excited, and what kept these songs close to the top-played list all year long.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Best Albums of 2007: 15-11

15. The National - Boxer
“Apartment Story” got me into the dark forbidding place, and “Fake Empire” kept me there. All the rest is about atmosphere and how much low singing you can stand. I apparently have a very high threshold.

14. Okkervil River - The Stage Names
When people bashed Bright Eyes “I’m Wide Awake...” a couple years ago, they usually used Okkervil’s “Black Sheep Boy” as what real modern folk music should sound like. I wasn’t having any of it. Austin kept playing it for me, and I just couldn’t ever manage to sneak in. The latter album felt slick and detailed, while Mr. Conner’s effort felt freewheeling and spontaneous. Of course, Bright Eyes followed that album with the mannered Cassadega, and Okkervil make a rocking Americana record full of strange characters and lots of guitars. It’s the clear winner this year, and one of the last albums I thought I’d get into. I had kind of convinced myself I didn’t like them. And then “John Allyn Smith Sails” came on.

I never, ever, in a million, billion years would have predicted that they would just break into the Beach Boys. It’s one of the most rousing endings to any album I’ve heard since, probably, “I’m Wide Awake”. I know I keep comparing them to Bright Eyes, and they really don’t sound much alike at all, but I guess that means I (finally) like them. It’s a good thing.

13. Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full
Its no longer accurate to say Paul makes bad solo albums. He’ll probably never make anything as convincing as his Beatle compositions, or even the fantastic Ram, but he’s made five solid solo albums in a row. That’s impressive. They haven’t been classics, but for someone (rightly) demonized for thirty odd years for making mediocre shlock it is a feat.

I don’t really feel right ranking these new achievements, but if I had to pick I’d probably settle on this one. It shows a rejuvenated Paul taking his best shot at pop music since his early 70’s pinnacle, and mostly succeeding.

I’ll always be that guy fighting for Paul. He’s my favorite Beatle, and I cringe when people continue to belittle his contributions to modern music. It’s just nice to have something to show for my side. This helps.

12. Feist - The Reminder
It’s no great secret that Let It Die’s best moments were those actually written by the lady singing it. The second half of covers felt overbearing and fussy compared to the stripped down simplicity of the wondrous first half. It would seem smart of her to have learned her lesson and made a beautiful, stripped down album with nothing but originals. So it comes as a rather shocking surprise that the least interesting moments on The Reminder are those that most recall her first.

There is nothing wrong with these songs (So Sorry, The Park, Intuition), but the best moments of this CD are when she subverts these and either ratchets up the sex (My Moon My Man) or turns into a big goofball with her ear set on a sing-along. (One Two Three Four). Honestly, she could sing about just about anything and I’d listen, but the more insincere and mysterious she becomes the more I pay attention.

11. Jay-Z - American Gangster
I got watches I ain’t seen in months!
Oh, really? I haven’t worn a watch in years! When I still lived in New York, clocks smacked my face on a regular fifteen second interval on the subway. When not in the subway, I was usually staring at a computer screen with little numbers constantly glowing in the top right. What about on the street? I either had my nose buried in an ipod (top right), or had my handy cellphone at arms length. Who needs a watch?

Jay-Z’s separation from the streets he’s trying to rap about here is miles thick. I’m not convinced for a moment that he’s more Frank Lucus than Ludicrus. You can’t have it both ways. It’s the thinnest of concept albums, and one that features some of his absolute weakest production jobs.

This could have been just as big a disaster as Kingdom Come, but somehow, it manages to rank among his very best. I do love “Roc Boys” and “No Hook”, but it’s over that furious organ, spitting rhymes with Nas, that Jay really gets his point across. Jay didn’t become famous because he was a drug dealer. He got it because he can ride the wave of some organ crash, saying something ridiculous about eating too much at Mr. Chows, and still come out sounding downright triumphant.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Best Albums of 2007 - 20-16

20. Yeah Yeah Yeah - Is Is EP
Yeah, Show Your Bones had it’s moments, but hearing Karen O rip out in “Rockers to Swallow” is like hearing a dear old friend say hello for the first time in years. It’s the scream, that full bodied tear breaking over a wave of distorted guitars and drums that first attracted me in the first place. And for the most part, that’s what this album delivers. It’s not quite the cold classic of their self-titled e.p., or even their roaring first album, but it shows what we missed when they decided to be just a tad quieter. Sounds sad, but sometimes youthful bashing of instruments really does mean more.

19. White Stripes - Icky Thump
There seems to be two camps with this album. One believes this to be the Stripes fall from grace after two hit albums. The other that this is their best album since White Blood Cells. But I guess that depends on whether you like your favorite brother and sister combo rocking seriously or just cracking cruel jokes with guitars blazing and nothing but pure spite to fuel the fire.

Count me in the later. Nothing is better then when White gets all preachy about the lost morals of today's youth, while he layers on distortion three miles thick. Ah! How I missed being yelled at. And I especially missed the creepy sibling tales. Sure, the album is not near as solid as their breakthrough, and they did miss out on their folksy, acoustic side. But I'll always take the smart ass White to the one that gets his videos played on VH1. I know, it's snobbish. But there was a time when the weirdness of the Stripes seemed like commercial suicide. I remember it so well.
18. I’m Not There - Various Artists
Like I needed another reason to get heavily into Bob. It’s becoming a yearly occupation and each time I get a little further in. Last year it was No Direction Home, and now I have this: a covers album of mostly obscure Dylan songs that is consistently, and mind-bogglingly solid. This is strange. These random artists are taking lesser Dylan songs, covering them (mostly) faithfully and ending up with an album that pays homage to the classics but still sounds modern. Honestly, it could have been so bad.

It's still to big of a beast to fully plow through. I have my favorite (everything by Yo La Tengo, Maulkmus, and "Just Like A Woman" sung by Charlotte Gainsbourg). But I need more time. It's an album of as much pleasure as you have time to give, which you can definitely say about the man behind the whole project.

17. Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger
Though awfully funny, I now look back on 2005 as my favorite time for Mr. Adams. He was swigging whiskey, making a fool of himself, and releasing album after album of swaggering country anthems. But it couldn't continue without something going horribly wrong. This album is about as fine a product as could have emerged from a full-on rehab and a new girl that doesn't want to break his heart.

I agree with the suggestion that it's a mini greatest hits album, complete with some fantastic acoustic laments, breezy soft rock, rocking Replacement carbon-copies, and some genuine country ones. I prefer the first and the last, so about half of this album sends me into a dizzy. I always skip the more serious compositions for the moments when the melody gets so ingrained with his body that it feels like he could just exude sadness. What a beautiful image...even if it only occasionally pans out.

16. Bruce Springsteen - Magic
This album breaks my heart. I've been a huge Boss fan for years now, and I'm no longer scared to admit it. I used to listen to "Born to Run" with the bedroom door locked, quietly pumping my first in the air with all the teenage rage of his greatest characters. And here is an album with Springsteen completely unhinged, gunning for his former glory. The songs are drenched with some of his saddest images --I think of the flag flying over the courthouse and the clouds of grey on election day--and some rocking tunes to back them up.

But the production sucks. Every electric guitar is reverbed, all the acoustic guitars chime, and echo coats all his vocals in syrup. Instead of the wall-of-sound of Born to Run, he's made a polyphonic spree. Instead of poignant, the songs feel sappy. It's a sad fact that masks one of his best efforts with a sheen of irrelevance.

Fortunately, half the songs get to shine through the Disney strings, and make a difficult album perfectly bearable instead of a slog.

Best Albums of 2007: 25-21

25. Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha
This is when I knew it'd be a good year. Blake had loved Bird's previous album (Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs) and played it often when we were still in college (ages and ages ago!). But I had always resisted, always found a reason not to dive in. Not this album. It was the first album of the year that I played repeatedly, and still do. I think it was "Heretics" that drug me in. It feels wonderful to be proved wrong. So this seems like the perfect place to start this list, with a fantastic album in a year completely stocked full of them.

24. Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
It could have been a contender. With Niles Cline pulling the strings, and a live album showcasing some serious rocking, this one seemed destined to be a hell of good time. But all was apparently not well. Instead of bringing the barn down, they decided to retire to it. And they made an easy-going mid-70s soft rock album. Or at least they attempted to. Which is just as well, for when this album works, like the first half, I think they succeed brilliantly. It’s not until the later half that the lazy songs become boring, and some rather awkward rocking goes by without much moving in their wake. I'll still take the easy spirit of the first half, and especially the title song, to settle down to any day.

23. Grizzly Bear - Friend E.P.
Yellow House was a beautiful record, but for some reason I didn’t realize how complex the arrangements were until I saw them go apeshit live. The mutli-instrumentalist would be on both knees screaming into different microphones, punching different pedals, while the guitarists would be playing insanely intricate picking patterns, and someone would be screaming...and still, the melody would be maudlin and lazy. I couldn't figure it out. But some of the new song they played were moving a little faster, and those all ended up on the E.P. That includes a particularly creepy version of "He Hit Me", which changes the romantic relationship and increases the doom. The E.P. is still insanely beautiful, but this time with a little more below the hips.

22. Bright Eyes - Cassadaga
I wanted to adore this album like I had with “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning”, but it’s shiny veneer is hard to get through. Where that previous release felt warm and inviting, this one is glossy and slick. It makes some of his acoustic songs feel insincere.

Fortunately, he didn’t write an album of acoustic pleas, and when he strays from that formula some beautiful things start to happen. Who knew Connor could pull off a mid-tempo sixties pop gem like “Make a Plan to Love Me”? Or that he could finally get the jagged electronic beats to do something for him with “Coat Check Dream Song”?

Sure, I still like “Four Winds” and "If the Brakeman Turns My Way", but this album shows his restlessness is what makes him interesting, and why he still sounds like he has so much more to find.

21. Battles - Mirrored
What the...? I still have no idea what is going on in this album and I suppose I never will. The rhythms are too tight, the vocals too scattered, and the guitars...where to begin. As out of control and chaos-tinged, it's still maddeningly methodical and never overbearing. Much has been made about how this is indie-rock's stab at prog, but no song stretches past the 10 minute marks and (I don't believe) anyone breaks out in three part harmony. Just some insane rock made by people too talented to do anything else. I think it has much more in common with freak folk than Yes, but I suppose that's because I actually enjoy this stuff.