Best Music of 2007, Part I (Albums 20 through 11)
I have to admit: whenever I look over a best-of list that I’ve written myself, I always find myself a little bit disappointed. All these bands are too familiar to me. Where are the surprises for me to discover? Why couldn’t I think of anyone I’ve never heard of? When I read lists written by others, I’m looking for the right balance between confirmation of my tastes and new directions for me to explore – reliable, favorable write-ups of albums on my radar on which I haven’t yet formed much of an opinion, or intriguing descriptions of totally unfamiliar acts. An effective year end list should convince me that it knows me well enough to let it lead me by the hand into the dark. This is the principle I’ve tried to follow in constructing and writing up my favorite songs and albums of 2007. Especially for those readers who know me personally, I hope you’ll find something here that we can listen to together, nodding silently in agreement at how fortunate we are to have had the opportunity to hear this song once in our lives; and I hope you’ll explore some of the tracks that are new to you, because I’d like nothing more than to be responsible for introducing you to your new favorite band.
Before I get to my own list, I’d like to point you to Constantly Arriving‘s thoughts on the subject. Looking at her favorite albums of 2007, it should come as little surprise that we’ve been dating for 8 1/2 years. Her taste in music is impeccable.
My wrap up of 2007 will be in three parts. In this post, I’ll write up albums 11-20 of my top 20 albums of the year. The remaining 10 albums will follow in the next post. Finally, in a third post, I’ll give an additional 30 tracks that stood out for me this year. The rule is one track per artist. Including 1 standout track from each of the top 20 albums, and the 5 Overlooked Albums of 2006 I posted about earlier, that makes 55 tracks I’m hoping to share with all of my readers. I’ve been talked out of posting the tracks directly on this site, but I’ll be putting a zip file up on my webfiles, and sending out a link to a few people. Email me or drop me a comment including your email address if you’d like the link.
Without further ado:
20. Okkervil River — The Stage Names [Highlight: “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe”]
“When the breath that you breathed in the street screams there’s no science / When you look how you looked then to me, then I cease lying / and fall into silence.”
In 2005, I bought Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy on the strength of a couple of singles, but never really found my way into the album. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with an older track, “For The Captain,” with its lyrics about “the thing that is making its home in your radio” (I have a soft spot that I don’t understand for lyrics about radios), but don’t much care for its album, Stars To Small To Use (frontman Will Sheff’s side project, Palo Santo, did make my top tracks of ’06, though). The Stage Names is my favorite Okkervil River album yet: 9 solid tracks of folk-inflected, upbeat rock, topped off with a couple of hits and fading out with a gravelly jaunt through the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” at the end of “John Allyn Smith Sails,” is just enough to push Okkervil River over a couple of other solid contenders and into the #20 spot. “Unless It’s Kicks” has all the licks to give this mess some grace, and the witty math of Plus Ones (“No one wants to hear about your 97th tear…”) underscores the deftness of Sheff’s wordplay. But the highlight of the album for me is the opener, “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe,” if only because it’s heavy on what Okkervil River does best: making use of the natural , anapest-heavy rhythm of his lyrics to structure his stretched out musical phrasing and move masterfully between tension and resolution.
19. Caribou — Andorra [Highlight: “Melody Day”]
“Melody day what have I done / Now our hearts are locked up tight again.”
Apparently, Caribou has been around for a couple of years now, producing quality psych-infused electronica layered with wistful harmonies reminsicent of the Zombies. But it took a turn towards the garage-y bluntness of “Melody Day” to catch my ear. Andorra itself, while firmly rooted in the harmonic textures of psych rock, covers a wider range – “Sandy,” “Eli,” and others would be at home on Odyssey & Oracle (compare the chorus of “Desiree” with “Changes,” for example), while “Sundialing” and especially “Niobe” embrace the electronic idiom more explicitly. Meanwhile, for a few minutes at the start, “She’s The One” sounds like it’s about to go Animal Collective batshit nuts, then buries the freakout under airier arrangements. Caribou does phenomenal work incorporating electronic elements organically alongside sounds that still seem to belong to the late 60’s, working weird little feedback flutters in with flutes and strings, layers made out of recognizable instruments overlaid and reverbed with artful precision.
18. The Besnard Lakes — The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse [Highlight: “And You Lied To Me”]
“You aren’t even who you said you are / And you lied to me / When you went around defusing bombs / Changing into costume to follow all the criminals in the land / Who’d ever thought you’d join a band”
My interest in Pink Floyd probably peaked around my sophomore year of college, more due to overexposure than anything else. While I would (and do) still occasionally put on Wish You Were Here, I found (and find) myself totally unable to listen to anything off of Dark Side of the Moon. At a certain point, it just started to seem like a cliché, so familiar that I found myself no longer paying attention to what I was listening to. Yet I can still recall the appeal – the spacey guitar licks wrapped around temperate, even plodding pacing; the steady march from sparseness to distortion-heavy, richly layered climaxes; the patient denouements, waiting hollowly for the feeling to pass – even though the operatic grandeur of it all feels excessive to me.
The Besnard Lakes strike me as faithful heirs to the these most favorable qualities of Pink Floyd (with “Goodbye Blue Sky” and “Hey You” as perhaps the best reference points), but without the same sort of ambition or pretension. Whereas Floyd, reacting in part to the absent figure of Syd Barrett, embraced a sort of extroverted, romantic vision of mad genius (think “Shine On You Crazy Diamonds” and the lunatics of “Brain Damage”), the Besnard Lakes are much more comfortable in a neatly circumscribed, insular sound and vision. Their unlikely heroes, who no one thought would join a band, and who don’t get up until the afternoon, wrap themselves, like spies, in secrets they keep even from those closest to them. They address these heroes in an intimate second person, as “baby” and “dear,” pleadingly, trying to pull them back from the brink. The music responds in kind, stuck on the same steady sequences of notes, then wallowing in and out of shoegazey solos. Yet there’s more depth to these characters than the burnouts of fellow space rockers The Secret Machine’s “Alone, Jealous and Stoned.” It’s just that their faith in humanity has been shaken, and they need a little help getting unstuck.
17. Frog Eyes — Tears Of The Valedictorian [Highlight: “Bushels”]
“Oh, though, though he had l-l-l-l-lot’s to do, he pulled a fly off it’s little wing, oh to give the the birch birch back it’s spring when he pulled a fly, oh offa little wing, oh to give the earth back it’s radium swing, oh he pulled a its a five thousand feathered radium wings oh to give give give the birch back it’s spring, oh he pulled a flies offa little wing wing wing wing, oh to give the bir-ch back its swing, oh-oh-uh…”
If it wasn’t for Dan Bejar (Destoyer, New Pornographers) and Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown), who joined Frog Eyes front man Carey Mercer under the moniker of Swan Lake for last year’s mostly neglected masterpiece, Beast Moans, I don’t think I would have initially given Frog Eyes much of a chance. Frog Eyes is daunting to a new listener. Mercer doesn’t need much time with a musical idea to strip it of anything solid and find something rhythmic but atonal at its core. Yet, while Krug is undoubtedly my favorite of the trio, I can’t say that he would be the musician he is today without the influence of Mercer, who strikes me more and more on each listen as the greatest innovator of the bunch. Mercer’s willingness to take the axe to the things that hold traditional songs together, to generate an intolerable chaos out of which emerges at times moments of grace and harmony, opens up unforeseen musical possibilities that furthermore sound like they belong uniquely, if not definitively, to the contemporary indie rock landscape.
Case in point is Mercer’s use of his voice. In the great modernist tradition of those composers who write yelling into an open grand piano into their scores, Mercer is committed to testing the limits of the voice as an instrument. His deliberate incorporation of guttural growls, high pitched yelps and the cracks of excessive strain into his vocal performance expands the range of sounds that can be demanded of a vocalist. Unlike the growls and yelps of traditional rock ‘n roll, these elements aren’t mere punctuation for Mercer, but integral elements of each articulated syllable, blended together with traditional pitches, spoken words, and falsettos. The rapid movement between different uses of the voice reveals the mastery behind Mercer’s performance, in which every movement of the mouth, lungs, tongue and throat seems essential to producing the right sound. But Mercer also lets his voice, like his shaky guitar, waiver in the transitions in a way that seems entirely beyond his control – he strains his vocal cords to the point at which, in reacting to the internal dynamics of the vocal system, they take on a certain violent autonomy.
16. Justice — † [Highlight: “Phantom”]
I’ve just finished listening through Justice’s Fabriclive-rejected Xmas mixtape, wherein Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay give away some of the secrets of behind their non-alphabetically titled album, †. Aside from the thrilling ability to recontextualize tracks like Frankie Valli’s “Who Loves You” and Todd Rundgren’s “International Feel” into danceable club hits, one of the highlights of the mix was its inclusion of the source material for the most recognizable beats behind “Phantom” – a track called “Tenebre” from Italian prog rockers Goblin, best known for their work soundtracking films by horror master Dario Argento (most notably, they did the score for Dawn of the Dead). The reference to zombies-by-way-of-goblins is telling for the aesthetic of †. If Justice takes off where Daft Punk left off in “Da Funk,” exaggerating the robotic aspects of electronic music through synth-heavy, blatantly digital instrumentation and sutures left in plain sight, the younger of two French duos seems more attuned to the nightmarish aesthetic potential of these inhuman constructions. From the war drums beginning of album-opener “Genesis” to distortion drenched “Waters of Nazareth” and Phantom of the Opera (er… Club) haunted “Let There Be Light,” Justice borrows synth tracks (and occasionally other elements) from a variety of genres (metal, prog, and especially horror and sci-fi cinema soundtracks) at their most baroque to give their sound the threat of violence that makes it sound colossal. These pieces are balanced out by occasional diversion into more rounded off beats whose references are closer to disco (“D.A.N.C.E.”) and hip-hop (“The Party”). A bit overbearing at times, it would be unfortunate if all house sounded like this. But Justice’s ability to create danceable hits with this sort of imposing size makes them a force to be reckoned with.
15. Animal Collective — Strawberry Jam [Highlight: “Fireworks”]
“I can’t lift you up cause my mind is tired / It’s family beaches that I desire / That sacred night where we watched the fireworks / They frightened the babies and you know they’ve got two flashing eyes and if they are color blind / They make me feel that you’re only what I see sometimes.”
When I first got into Animal Collective’s Feels in early 2006, I was struck by the intensity of tracks like “Did You See The Words,” “Grass” and “Purple Bottle,” but totally turned off by most of the rest of the album. At their best, Animal Collective make exhilarating freak folk masterpieces out of ragged phrasing, accelerated tribal drumming, oddball lyrics mixed with some cooing and grunting, and perfect pop melodies. But then they have a tendency to wander off into some sort of arhythmic, amelodic, “nature sounds” experimental nonsense out of which occasionally will emerge some intricately structured moment of brilliance, only to fade back into the miasma of something that isn’t quite a song. Strawberry Jam is the first Animal Collective album I’ve found that I can listen to straight through. While the moments of nonsense aren’t entirely absent, they’re toned down, shortened, and effectively incorporated into more listenable tracks in a way that adds to the intensity rather than distracting from it. Strawberry Jam isn’t any less experimental than earlier Animal Collective works, it’s just working on better hypotheses, banking on the strength of infectious rhythms and melodies stretched out to the point of ecstasy to provide a loose framework for the ear amidst the micro-bursts that are exploding all around the listener.
I’m not entirely sure what “Fireworks” is about, but it seems to plumb the experience of watching fireworks side-by-side for some sort of meditation on vision as the paradigmatic for a self composed entirely of the traces of external experience (“I’m only all I see sometimes”).
14. Los Campesinos! — Sticking Fingers Into Sockets EP + The International Tweexcore Underground Single [Highlight: “You! Me! Dancing!”]
“Not sure if you mind if I dance with you, / but I don’t think right now that you care about anything at all. / And oh, if only there were clothes on the floor, / I’d feel for certain I was bedroom dancing. ”
I nearly left Los Campesinos! off my list this year, since they’ve still yet to release a proper album (Hold On Now, Youngster is due in February), but it just wouldn’t be honest with myself to ignore one of my favorite discoveries of the year. This scrappy band of Welsh (don’t let the name throw you off) teens had me at hello, ever since I heard those first few notes of the verse kick in on “You! Me! Dancing!”, and the fascination only seemed to grow with each subsequent song.
The International Tweexcore Underground single, which includes a cover of Black Flag’s “Police Story” (“understand, we’re fighting a war we can’t win; they hate us, we hate them”) along with the title track (“how you gonna bring the state down when you’re propping it up with day time radio?”) and “C Is The Heavenly Option” (a multiple choice test in which the correct answer is always a shameless, throw-caution-to-the-wind kiss) reads as a sort of mission statement. If “tweexcore” sounds like a contradiction, it is: Los Campesinos! are not equal parts twee and hardcore, so much as twee to the core: like a little kid who’s just had too much candy, Los Campesinos! dash through their jangly, upbeat pop melodies and cute, witty lyrics with a manic stop-go phrasing that just begs for more: pop faster! twee harder! more handclaps! Even at their fast pace, Los Campesinos! borrow from the fast-slow (or, faster-less fast) aesthetic, alternating between noisy freakouts and the calm familiarity of a catchy chorus. If this doesn’t have you and me dancing, you need to get off your ass, ’cause I’m already on the dancefloor.
13. Dan Deacon — Spiderman Of The Rings [Highlight: “The Crystal Cat”]
“I’m gonna get my bathing suit on, gonna get my base face on / gonna get my hat out of loan, gonna get my space face on / I’m gonna turn all snakes into bone, go wishing the stone, keep the crystal cat cold, gotta get the throne / hope my baby, may we meet a beastman / hold us there, happy but by one hand / gonna get my pile of stone, gonna my loud loud gong / gonna get my men into rows, you better cover dem toes”
Like most good electronic musicians, Dan Deacon is a collector of odds and ends: samples, electronic equipment, trippy green skulls, kitschy lyrics, suggestions for audience participation, etc. It’s just that his odds are odder than most, and he seems to let them accumulate at an obsessive, ever-increasing pace. Last time I saw him, for example, he had the audience make a huge circle, around which an exponentially increasing number of people then ran, slapping fives with the dwindling ranks of the outside circle. Musically, this logic of accumulation is apparent from the first track of Spiderman Of The Rings, which lays down the “Woody Woodpecker” laugh over some marimba, first at regular speed, then adding a second, decelerated version of the same laugh track, throwing in additional tracks at various speeds until the chatter of the woodpecker’s percussive call becomes an entire spastic, jump up and down, demented dance track. The effect of all the acceleration and deceleration is to create those weirdo, chimpunkish fast-forward vocals singing geeky lines full of Adult Swim style non-sequitters. The lyrics, too, seem to just accumulate. They often sound like little more than a list of weird stuff that Dan Deacon happened to think of. On “Wham City,” Deacon’s ode to the Baltimore collective of experimental musicians of which he is a part, the Baltimore music scene shows up as a gathering up of whatever was around (“Out of the fountain flows gold, into a huge hand /That hand is held by a bear who had a sick band / Of ghosts and cats / And pigs and bats / With brooms and bats / And wigs and rats / And play big dogs like queens and kings / And everyone plays drums and sings”). At a Dan Deacon show, whatever is around is sure to be awesome.
12. Spoon — Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga [Highlight: “The Ghost Of You Lingers”]
“…the ghost of you lingers (put on a clinic till we hit the wall) it lingers (just like a sailor with his wounds being salted) / I had a nightmare nothing could be put back together (would you settle the score) / If you were here, would you calm me down…”
Let’s face it – Spoon is probably among the most ubiquitous indie rocks acts of the decade. The Arcade Fire might get cited more often as the best band of its time, and we all have our picks for artists we like better, but everyone I talk to these days seems to have heard of Spoon or at least heard a song or too in passing (for me, “The Way We Get By” was, for several years, one of those songs that I knew but didn’t realize I knew until I heard it on the album). Without reaching back to vets like Radiohead with their feet firmly planted in the ’90’s, it’s hard to think of too many indie acts with the kind of name recognition Spoon is in the process of building. Not only that, they seem to be one of the least polarizing indie acts around. Sly without being pretentious, subtle without being inaccessible, genuinely rock without excess testosterone, they’re hard to dislike, and easy to find something exciting in to spark an interest.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon’s best album in years (ok, they’ve only really released one LP since 2002, and it was pretty good too), gives some decent hints as to what all the fuss is about. Building on the snarky rhythm and soul of Kill The Moonlight with tracks like “Don’t Make Me A Target,” “My Japanese Cigarette Case” and, you guessed it, “Rhythm & Soul,” Ga x 5 expands in poppier directions, adding exuberant horns that pep up “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “The Underdog.” Yet there’s no attempt to back away from the experimentalism of earlier albums, and nowhere is this more apparent than in “The Ghost Of You Lingers,” which lays down washed out and reverbed strata of Britt Daniels vocals over tense, choppy piano, blending the traces of past, present and future into a sea of memories lost and found.
11. Arcade Fire — Neon Bible [Highlight: “Keep The Car Running”]
“They know my name ’cause I told it to them, / But they don’t know where and they don’t know when / It’s coming, when it’s coming.”
Neon Bible sees the Arcade Fire begin to emerge from underneath the covers of their bedrooms and their parents bedrooms, looking beyond the sheltering boundaries of the neighborhood to the greater theater of global events. The political references are much more explicit now (“Don’t wanna work in a building downtown / No, I don’t wanna work in a building downtown / I don’t know what I’m gonna do / Cause the planes keep crashing always two by two / Don’t wanna work in a building downtown / No, I don’t wanna see it when the planes hit the ground”) but the allegorical approach, which wraps the sinister mythology of the black mirror around the contemporary political landscape, avoids overreaching with a prescriptive politics and keeps the focus on the emotional register of the War on Terror: the anticipation of disaster (“Black Mirror,” “Keep the Car Running”), the retreat from public life (“Windowsill”), the misguided Intervention (“Hear the soldier groan, ‘We’ll go at it alone'”), the sense of unmournable loss (“My Body Is A Cage,” “Ocean of Noise”), and the media spectacle (“Antichrist Television Blues”).
Musically, Neon Bible is everything we could have hoped for out of a sophomore album. While it’s hard to live up to its predecessor, the album keeps close enough to the aesthetic of Funeral to provide a sense of continuity, while simultaneously drawing on Springsteen to evolve towards a bigger sound well fit for the big stage. The new live performance can’t match the intensity of that ’05 Coachella set where they burst forth with “Wake Up,” as if overwhelmed by the opportunity to play to such a large and enthusiastic crowd for possibly the first time. But if that sense of wonder is lost now that they seem entirely in command of the stage, they still seem to be having a vigorously fun time up there, and are scaling up the spectacle, poised to establish themselves as standard-bearers of the indie rock generation.
[Stay tuned for Part II (Albums 10 through 1)...]