Best Music of 2007, Part II (Albums 10 through 1)
Apparently someone’s being reading my last post – someone who doesn’t like me. No sooner had I declared my total apathy towards Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon than Coachella declares that Roger Waters will be playing the album in its entirety to close off the fest. I better be careful what I say…
In my last post, I praised Okkervil River’s The Stage Names, Caribou’s Andorra, The Besnard Lakes’ The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse, Frog Eyes’ Tears Of The Valedictorian, Justice’s †, Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam, Los Campesinos!’s Sticking Fingers Into Sockets, Dan Deacon’s Spiderman Of The Rings, Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. In this post, I close out the list with the top 10 albums of 2007.
10. Sunset Rubdown — Random Spirit Lover [Highlight: “Winged/Wicked Things”]
“The pattern of flight is chaotic and blind, but it’s right, cause chaos is yours and chaos is mine mine mine mine / And chaos is love and they say love is blind”
Spencer Krug is currently my favorite musician, and among his three principle projects (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, and Swan Lake), Sunset Rubdown is currently my favorite. I may not like Random Spirit Lover quite as much as my #3 album of 2006, but it’s still a hell of an album. While not as flawless as its predecessor, Random Spirit Lover builds on the pensive depths of Shut Up I Am Dreaming, adding new layers of competing, contrapuntal melodies on top of the intensely rhythmic, densely structured chord progressions. The boldest pieces, including opener “The Mending Of The Gown,” a revised “Winged/Wicked Things,” and “Up On Your Leopard,” achieve a level of cacophonous, chaotic energy that often seems even more compelling than their older material. But like all experiments, there are occasional missteps, particularly on slower numbers like “Magic vs. Midas.” Other experimental directions, including the madrigal-inspired rounds of “The Courtesan Has Sung” and the haunted funhouse melody that runs through “Colt Stands Up” and “Stallions,” come off more successfully.
9. Radiohead — In Rainbows [Highlight: “Nude”]
“Don’t get any big ideas, they’re not going to happen”
There’s very little I can say about this album that hasn’t already been better said here and here, so I’ll simply observe that Radiohead are incredible songwriters, and that they have an incredible ability to craft subtle, cohesive atmospheric landscapes with, as they sang on Kid A, “everything in its right place.” Listening through the albums again as I write this, I’m most impressed by the few seconds of children’s choir at the 2:13 mark of “15 Step,” the little rattle that evolves out the drum beat on “Videotape,” the point where the arpeggios of “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” build towards a climax around the 3:00 mark, at which the background drops out and a new double-layered series of isolated arpeggios backs Thom Yorke’s vocals for a minute or so without interference from percussion or other instruments. The obsession with detail is already an aesthetic statement, reducible neither to ornament nor to the place of the detail within the larger composition. It is the perfectionism of the utterly alone, turning away from the human world towards an intimate knowledge of the machine that the sparsity of In Rainbows allows to emerge, denuded, into the residual glow of the domestic space.
8. Panda Bear — Person Pitch [Highlight: “Good Girl/Carrots”]
“Listen in between your notes, there’s something been going on / while you were busy taking notes / and look in between your moments, there’s something good happening / its good to sometimes slow it down”
It’s been a good year for the members of Animal Collective. Not only was Strawberry Jam great, but two members (Avey Tare and Panda Bear) each released solo projects. While Avey Tare’s backwards-recorded Pullhair Rubeye didn’t do it for me, Panda Bear came up with a masterpiece. “Good Girl/Carrots” (especially the “Carrots” part) is Panda Bear’s manifesto: Person Pitch is about slowing it down and luxuriating in the details of production. It’s not that the vocal tracks, which have been repeatedly compared to SMiLE-era Brian Wilson, aren’t catchy. But the real pleasure of this album is in the little pieces of chimes, percussion, and artifacts of production between the notes of the lackadaisical pop melody tape loops that roll in and out like waves. For an album whose production is so jarring at times, though, Person Pitch is remarkably chill.
7. Chromatics — Night Drive + contributions to After Dark [Highlight: “In The City”]
“Shining violence, shining victim, in the headlights, shining pistols, shining diamonds, from a necklace, faceless driver, drive away / in the city…”
When Gorilla vs. Bear first began to inundate me with tracks from Jersey-based label Italians Do It Better‘s “italo-disco” compilation, After Dark, my initial reactions were negative. The instrumentation of these down-tempo dance beats sounded dated and, frankly, trashy. As I listened on, however, I became entranced by the elegance of these sparse compositions: haunting like The Knife but more spectral, if less gruesome, favoring rest over repetition. While I whole-heartedly recommended the entire After Dark compilation, as well as Italians Do It Better-labelmate Glass Candy’s tour exclusive B/E/A/T/B/O/X, Chromatics stands out as the best of the trend. Silkily layering faint strings over nonchalant snares, heavy reverb on the treble, and bass beats that seem more to melt than to boom, Night Drive feels ready to let all of the tension out through the shoulders. Patient pauses and plenty of empty space leaves room for the mind to wander and for imagination to fill in the gaps with the traces of notes retained from earlier tracks. Night Drive seduces by metonymy – located in the space between the club and the bedroom, it alludes to a retro dancefloor, but also to punk, without committing itself to anything beyond its own smug self-enclosure. Listen for the chilling cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”
6. Burial — Untrue [Highlight: “Archangel”]
“Holding you /could it be alone, could it be alone, could it be alone /
Loving you / could it be alone, could it be alone, could it be alone
Kissing you, / tell me how can you, tell me I belong, tell me I belong”
Disembodied voices that can only articulate themselves as the subjects of another’s as yet non-existent discourse, the “I” of the “tell me I belong.” Lacking belonging, they cry out a loving, a holding, a kissing that has no origin but the split voice, spliced apart by voice modulation, spliced together from multiple vocal tracks. In the splice, the voices touch, they kiss without ever forming a unit, a subject, a pair, a belonging together in the way that the one belongs together with itself or in the way that the one belongs together with others. The belonging of a longing that belongs to no one.
The layers of musical ether which these voices haunt have the warmth and the welcoming of an abandoned home: this is no one’s home, there’s no one at home; no trespassing, there can be no trespassing, as this is not someone’s home; make yourself at home, you’re not at home, this is not a home; welcome home.
5. LCD Soundsystem — Sound of Silver [Highlight: “All My Friends”]
“You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan / And the next five years trying to be with your friends again
You’re talking 45 turns just as fast as you can / Yeah, I know it gets tired, but it’s better when we pretend.”
Coachella, 2007: Separated from the group, I watch the LCD set alone, oblivious to my surroundings, absorbed by the sound. When the end of “All My Friends” rings out with a repeated plea, “Where are my friends tonight? If I could see all my friends tonight…” the question is appropriate. I think back on the series of events that have landed me in the middle of a desert in California at this moment. I’m honestly flooded by memories of people with whom I’ve shared so many formative experiences but with whom I don’t really keep in touch: college roommates, grade school best friends, friends from summer camp, the people I used to say “hi” to in the halls in high school, etc. And even my best friends from high school, most of whom I’m still close with, but don’t see often enough; my cousins, who like me have been showing up to smaller and smaller percentages of family events, now that everyone’s away at school; and even Sarah, who’s standing outside of the dance tent, reluctant to brave the crowds for a band she’s not yet entirely sold on, and who’s been too far away for too long.
Lollapalooza, 2007: I watch the set with Sarah, my brother, one of my best friends from high school, and another good friend. They start off with “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” since Daft Punk is, in fact, about to play an incredible set in about an hour. When they ask “Where are my friends tonight?” the answer is, “right fucking here.”
In trying to figure out what distinguishes LCD Soundsystem from just another band with great beats, I’ve increasingly come back to the figure of nostalgia. Dating back to their earlier self-titled album, they’ve always seemed to have an uncanny ability, first, to create nostalgia for a music scene that never existed or for experiences never experienced, and second, to translate that longed for scene, through a sort of excessive repetition, into their own work; in other words, to produce the present as a repetition or return of a past that never took place. “Daft Punk is Playing in My House” plays on the ambiguous relationship between recording and live performance to make present the anticipation of three scenes:
- the impossible scene: Daft Punk, i.e Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter in the (robot-suit covered) flesh, spinning live in James Murphy’s house from the top of a smaller but no less awesome glow-in-the-dark pyramid (but even this live performance would already be a repetition of recorded materials)
- the remembered-anticipated scene: a young James Murphy, not yet of LCD Soundsystem, not yet founder of DFA Records, not yet established as a DJ, just ready to give some folks a good time, spinning Daft Punk with the enthusiasm of someone who actually has Daft Punk playing live in his house
- the present scene: an older Jams Murphy still in awe of and in the shadow of Daft Punk, but doing everything he can to reproduce the same kind of energy they bring to their live shows
He was there (“the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids”), Murphy told us in “Losing My Edge,” in a semi-ironic proclamation of hipster-cred, but the message isn’t backwards looking; it’s that we are here, that this show, this moment, with or without our friends, will always be, potentially, the scene we look back upon when LCD has lost its edge “to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.”
4. Menomena — Friend and Foe [Highlight: “Wet & Rusting”]
“It’s hard to take risks with a pessimist”
Menomena has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve been fooling around with my keyboard a lot more these days. I’ve been extremely impressed by how much they’re able to do with only three musicians layering very simple, repetitive patterns of notes on keyboard, guitar, sax, and chimes. The minimalism of the individual elements keeps everything light and catchy, but it’s the seemingly effortless (but obviously well calculated) movement between the parts that makes these songs infectiously difficult to sort out. I’m also impressed by Menomena’s range – within the same minimalist idiom, they’re able to move deftly from the catastrophic violence of “The Pelican” and “Air Aid,” to the inspirational, almost end-of-soundtrack resolve of “Muscle’n Flo” and “Rotten Hell,” and the mournful angst of “My My.”
3. Marissa Nadler — Songs III: Bird On The Water + Bonus EP [Highlight: “Daisy and Violet”]
“Daisy fell ill and was followed by violet / A neighbor would find them dead on the ground / Somewhere inside the mind of a child / Are harmonies only a sister could sing.”
It’s something of a shame, but also somehow appropriate, that this year’s most beautiful piece of singing should be a B-side, buried on the bonus disc to Songs III. But “Daisy and Violet” captures that grace of Marissa Nadler’s voice and aesthetic better than anything else she’s written. It tells the true story of two conjoined twins, sold to the circus as a vocal ensemble. The twins read as a figure for Nadler’s own music, which layers her own voice on top of its recorded double in haunting harmonies over folky fingerpicking in a style that references the exquisite but forgotten gaps in the American aesthetic record which Greil Marcus calls “Old Weird America.” Nadler’s song recalls Daisy and Violet years after their side-show youth, working dully in the market, their otherworldly cadences buried by quotidian concerns in their soon-to-be-extinguished thoughts, a fragile, unspoken secret shared between sisters.
2. Yeasayer — All Hour Cymbals [Highlight: “2080”]
“Yeah Yeah we can all grab at the chance and be handsome farmers / Yeah you can have twenty one sons and be blood when they marry my daughters / And the pain that we left at the station will stay in a jar behind us / We can pickle the pain into blue ribbon winners at county contests”
The soundtrack to a nuclear winter will not be black metal. The most apocalyptic potentials of the contemporary musical landscape lie in the emptiness of vocal harmonies. Thus, for all the talk of haunted funhouses and abandoned homes in some of my other reviews, the most frightening thing I heard this year was Yeasayer’s All Hour Cymbals. The relation between the deserty, Fleetwood Mac-style melodies and the mobile excess of light percussion on of “2080” captures all the angst of a song facing forward to the waining of a civilization – “I can’t sleep when I think about the future I’ve been born into … In 2080 / I’ll surely be dead / So don’t look ahead, / Never look ahead.”
1. Of Montreal — Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer [Highlight: “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal”]
“I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / Who could appreciate Georges Bataille / Standing at Swedish festival discussing ‘Story of the Eye'”
2007 was, for me, the year of Of Montreal. Hissing Fauna may have been the first 2007 album I heard, and my first show of the year was Of Montreal at Avalon on January 27. I watched them reprise the Avalon set at Coachella and then steal the show at Pitchfork with a mind-boggling spectacle involving giant claw hands, darth vader masks, a winged Late B.P. Helium, and some sort of Mr. Potatohead covered in red-paint filled balloons with Kevin Barnes’s face tape on each one. Meanwhile, live covers of the Kinks, Bowie, and the Fiery Furnaces poured in from the blogs, and Barnes and co. squeezed out another 5 track EP, Icons, Abstract Thee. Also, if you were paying attention, you might have heard that Barnes performed half a set in Vegas nude. The shows I saw were tamer – the Avalon and Coachella sets closed with pleather shorts and fishnets, and Pitchfork closed with a codpiece. Of Montreal brought their live performance to a new level of mass confusion and amusement, while releasing some of their best work musically.
“The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” brings out the two things that make Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer a unique record both among this year’s best and within Of Montreal’s catalogue.
The first is the maturity and sophistication of its production. Hissing Fauna strikes me as a significant step forward for Kevin Barnes, carrying the line of development from the baroque psychadelic extravagance of 2004’s Satanic Panic In The Attic (my first exposure to Of Montreal), through the multi-layered drum-machine disco elements of ’05’s Sunlandic Twins. This latest incarnation preserves the pop sensibilities that have been with the band from the start, and the general absurdity of Satanic Panic, but it takes the rhythmic and harmonic complexities of Sunlandic Twins in a more sinister and emotionally challenging direction. Sure, the disco element is still there in tracks like “Suffer For Fashion” and “She’s a Rejector.” But Barnes, coping with the emotional fallout a collapsing marriage, is now foregrounding the manic-depression of his sound, and the ability to move back and forth between abandon and abandonment (see, for example, “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse”: “Come on mood shift, shift back to good again / Come on mood shift, shift back to good again / Come on, be a friend”) gives Of Montreal the gravitas to tenuously hold together their most aberrant trajectories on an album that always feels like it’s bursting at the seems.
This sort of economics of excess – the constant, impossible attempt to reinscribe aberrance within some sort of rationality, and the creative energy released in collapse – is the second defining aspect of Hissing Fauna that “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” foregrounds. We know that Barnes has been thinking a lot about economics these days – after “Let’s pretend we don’t exist, let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica” became “Let’s go Outback tonight, life will still be there tomorrow…” and Of Montreal followed up with an equally awkward spot shelling for T-mobile, Barnes penned an article for Stereogum.com called “Selling Out Isn’t Possible” in which, alongside some pretty obvious stuff about artists needing to eat, his understated claim seemed to be to reclaim his ambivalence towards commercialism as itself a source of innovation:
I’ve struggled because of the backlash following my songs placement in TV commercials. That is, until I realized that the negative energy that was being directed towards me really began to inspire my creativity. It has given me a sense of, “well, I’ll show them who is a sellout, I’m going to make the freakiest, most interesting, record ever!!!” … “I’m going to prove to them that my shit is wild and unpolluted by the reach of some absurd connection to mainstream corporate America.”
In “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal,” the semi-ironic reference to Bataille (can there be any other sort of reference to Bataille?) quoted above is thus emblematic. Bataille has become a sort of marketing device for picking up cute girls at Swedish festivals. But if the past is a grotesque animal, it’s not because the mere reference to Bataille strikes Barnes as pretentious, but rather because, fully inhabiting a Bataillan perspective, the absurdity of founding a lasting relationship on the violence of “Story of the Eye” now shows itself in the form of Barnes’s own past laughing at him from the other side of a failed attempt to transform the community of those who have no community into a working community of lovers. When Barnes sings “In its eyes [i.e. the eyes of the past] I see / how completely wrong you can be,” the eye still refers to Story of the Eye: it’s in the eyes of Story of the Eye that it finally seems completely wrong to have fallen in love with the first cute girl that he met that could appreciate Georges Bataille.
Barnes’s concern for excess and economy feeds into the album’s gender politics as well. The upside of the “girls kissing girls” in “Bunny Ain’t No Kind Of Rider,” for example (“Eva, i’m sorry / But you will never have me / To me, you’re just some faggy girl / And i need a lover with soul power”) is the line “besides, you wouldn’t know what to do with me.” And when Barnes shows up on stage with excessively large, almost clownish, circles of blush on his cheeks, dressed like an elf or an 8 foot tall woman, or wearing a little too little below the waist, he really does render null all attempts to know what to do with him.
[Best 30 Songs of 2007 coming soon...]