National Public Viking

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Top 30 Albums of 2007 or Why Can't Lars Just Listen to Feist Like Everyone Else

You know, I write about music all day at work, where I've been especially inundated with list after list for the past two weeks, so you can understand if I'm a little less wordy and extensive as I've been in years past. That said, I'm not really sure what trends I find in my 2007 favorites. I began listening to Van Morrison and Bob Dylan in earnest, spent much less time (or even at all) with jazz and more with all things psychedelic and bluesy.

Quick note: I decided to exclude the 10 CDs I put out on my record label out of, I don't know, fairness to the list-making gods? Nevertheless, I loved them all -- any one of them could appear in my top 30.

1. Panda Bear- Person Pitch [Paw Tracks]
My number one albums in the last few years have been the kinds where there is an immediate connection – might tug at an emotion (like Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan, which I feel nothing for these days, but that’s another discussion), force a radical look at humanity (The Drift), or destroy the way I understand music (once again, Scott Walker's The Drift). Generally, it’s a very gut/heart reaction with the critic in me coming out third or fourth.

Strange thing is, I’m still figuring out if Person Pitch fits into that mold. Animal Collective and its members made some fascinating records this year -- Strawberry Jam (#13) and Avey Tare’s conceptually brilliant (if sometimes difficult to digest) Pullhair Rubeye. But it’s Panda Bear’s somewhat conventional pop record that challenges more than any of the others. The easy way out is to say it's Pet Sounds re-imagined in samples and extended compositions, which helps me explain it to friends. But what interests me most about Person Pitch is its construction, reliant entirely on samples manipulated, stretched and unidentifiable for a pop record. Sampling is nothing new in pop music, for sure, but mostly as beats, clever tricks or plunderphonic sound collages. But to limit your scope to bits of audio in a (more or less) traditional pop format with no "traditional" instrumentation... I think we're going to see more and more artists take Panda Bear's lead in the coming years.

2. Burial- Untrue [Hyperdub]
I don't know enough about "dubstep" music to really tell you how representative Burial is of the odd electronic genre, or if other dubsteppers consider his unexpected success a total fluke. Ignorance seems to be the main beef with Burial's fans, but in the end, the reason why otherwise uninterested indie-rockers, jazz heads and ambient music geeks latch onto Burial is because of its universality. Accessibility really isn't the word here because the hiccuping click beat, a standard of dubstep, isn't at all danceable, nor are Burial's disembodied voices that sing like ghosts without homes to haunt. Untrue is a record that nods off to melancholic sleep on the Metro at 2 in the morning, woken by the bitter cold of a cloudy night.

3. Rhys Chatham- A Crimson Grail [Table of the Elements]
It’s literally the sound of 400 guitars filling the halls of the Sacre Coure in Paris, a breathtaking minimalist composition despite its maximalist exterior. Chatham’s three-part work uses the grandiose to grand effect by turning a chord change into a stunning triumph, a hi-hat into a mantra, a potential storm into a rolling tide.

4. Boris with Michio Kurihara- Rainbow [Important]
I think I like the Japanese band’s shoegazing pop records more than I do their doomy sludge ‘n’ roll and drone explosions. Sure, Boris rock out Pink-style here with huge riffs and scrawly guitar solos, but it’s the delicate, lyrical songs on Rainbow that get to me. Thanks in no small part, of course, to Japanese psychedelic guitar god Kurihara (White Heaven, Ghost, to name a couple), who knows what it means to craft subtle textures out of so little.

5. Chris Schlarb- Twilight & Ghost Stories [Unusual Animals/Asthmatic Kitty]
Chris Schlarb has made two albums in two years that have struck a personal note with me, last year’s being A Prospect of Freedom by Create (!). I think more people have found a connection to Twilight, partially because of its folk tendencies but also because of its deeply personal nature. But as I ghost-wrote for NPR’s Second Stage: There is always the danger of the story consuming the art. When the emotional background of a piece of work — be it a painting, a sculpture, or in this case, an album — becomes the setting, it runs the risk of losing artistic integrity. However,Twilight & Ghost Stories recognizes its personal vulnerabilities and reveals a stunning collage.

6. Deathspell Omega- Fas – Ite, Maledicti, In Ignem Aeternum [Anja]
With most black metal bands centering more on self-hatred, general paganism and hellish mythology, and general misanthropic vibes (with an oddball environmentalist or two), fewer black metal bands – at least in America – hate on God and Christianity as much as their Norwegian forbearers. Well, Satan curse the French, Deathspell Omega not only hate on God and Christianity but do so in (what at least the liners tell me – the lyrics are indecipherable) an extremely (extreme!) intelligent, philosophical discourse. Now, the mysterious band hasn’t unconverted this Protestant, but Deathspell Omega has recorded one of the most innovative black metal albums in recent memory. The second part in a trilogy on humanity’s relationship with God and Satan, Fas – like many of the best BM albums of late – infuses a post-rock sentiment to break up the blazing monotony of buzzing guitars. Fas also has an element of the avant-guard, employing Bartok-ian interludes; thus, advancing the notion that black metal really is the strangest of all metal that has descended from Black Sabbath. But by far the most daring aspect of the album, especially given its lyrical content, is the use of a mass choir. It’s absolutely heretical (and Wagnerian, I suppose): These haunting voices that could very well fill a cathedral, providing fodder for Deathspell Omega’s aural argument.
This blurb originally appeared on Tiny Mix Tapes' Eureka Albums of 2007 article.

7. Fennesz + Sakamoto- Cendre [Touch]
After recently finding The Pearl in a used record store (Harold Budd and Brian Eno's 1984 ambient masterpiece), this second collaboration between Japanese neo-classical composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and ambient guitar/laptop dude Fennesz really spoke to me. It's not fair to put the two in the same plane, but both accomplish a stunning manipulation of an acoustic instrument (here, a piano), with the beautiful integration of laptop/guitar drones seeping through my headphones.

8. Gui Boratto- Chromophobia [Kompakt]
A joyful, expressive celebration of beauty and life in the beats of a Brazilian tech-house producer.

9. Oxbow- The Narcotic Story [Hydrahead]
If you think of The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen steeped in blues and raised on metal rather than sleezy R&B, you get an idea how Oxbow’s gritty Narcotic Story sounds. It’s tortured, it’s ugly, it’s a bit more real than most people are willing to stand.

10. James Blackshaw- The Cloud of Unknowing [Tompkins Square]
Can’t remember who wrote it – might’ve been the BBC – but what sets Blackshaw from his neo-Takoma/John Fahey brothers (many of whom put out stellar records this year, by the way) is just how clean his sound comes over the speakers. That was the appeal of many of the raga-influenced folkies – the sheer rawness of it, but there’s something nicely refreshing about Blackshaw’s polished compositions, his 12-string acoustic guitar seeming to circle forever.

11. Group Doueh- Guitar Music from the Western Sahara [Sublime Frequencies]
Just when you think psychedelic-rock/noise/folk/freak-jazz/whatever music has become too “out” even for your hardest hallucinogens – and really, at this point in the psych spectrum, are drugs even necessary anymore? – the trippiest sound mongers always seem to find the trippier. The man known as Doueh and his crew makes totally weird, psychedelic electric desert blues. It’s as rooted in their traditional Sahrawi forms as it is Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. Doueh’s guitar is a rusty buzzsaw, whirling and whirring above wild vocals that perfectly accentuate his spindly style. And who else but the globe trotting Sublime Frequencies dudes are gonna find such bizarre treasures? Sun City Girl Alan Bishop and Hisham Mayet discovered the group on Moroccan radio and went on a months-long search for the man behind these Hendrix-on-a-serious-transcendental-trip jams. This ain’t polished like desert blues legend Ali Farke Toure and sure ain’t got the production of Tinariwen. In fact, some of the tracks culled from the ‘80s sound like downright shit. But the bootleg quality only seems to magnify the blistering heat of the Sahara, Doueh’s sweat greasing the fret board for maximum soul.
This blurb originally appeared on Tiny Mix Tapes' Eureka Albums of 2007 article.

12. Low- Drums and Guns [Sub Pop]
After being less than enthused by The Great Destroyer (but ultimately loving parts of it because I just can’t say no to Low), I took immediately to Drums and Guns. The band’s become minimalist again, but only on the surface. The textures that come through the arrangements are some of Low’s most haunting. Alan Sparhawk’s lyrics continue to challenge me, especially “Murderer,” and he's letting his Richard Thompson love show in his guitar work, a development I hope he continues to explore.

13. Animal Collective- Strawberry Jam [Domino]
I liked this record well enough on its release, but it was their concert at the 9:30 Club that revealed what Animal Collective is all about: The beat. I had more fun dancing in the back with a bunch of dirty hippies than I would ever had with the cross-armed hipsters up front. As weird and as warped as their pop music gets, I hope their music will continue to explore the possibilities of noise in dance music.

14. Daft Punk- Alive [Virgin]
Alive turns the concept of the live album on its head. It simultaneously acts as a Daft Punk mixtape and mash-up of their entire career, even the ill turns of Homework, and recontextualizes it to not only celebrate Daft Punk itself but, more importantly, the history of electronic dance music.

15. Smokedog- Rogue Warriors & Blunt Force Trauma EP [self-released]
My new favorite band out of Athens, Georgia. 2007 alone saw 12 freely-distributed, self-released CD-Rs. Smokedog sound like a garage-punk duo that grew up on Captain Beefheart, Japanese psych-freakouts Les Rallizes Denudes and Can. All seriously lo-fi, really fun and – from my limited contact with the band – genuinely ecstatic about making music. I am stoked to release a compilation of their best tracks, thus far, on Thor's Rubber Hammer sometime early next year.

16. Battles- Mirrored [Warp]
I don’t have much to say about Mirrored that hasn’t already been said other than it’s one of the most fun records I heard all year. An absolute delight.

17. Telenovela- Saffron Songs [self-released]
How can one objectionably write about friends’ music? You can’t, so I won’t try. But I will gush. Having heard many, many early versions, demo versions and live versions of these songs for nearly a year, I felt very weird about the final product. A hard hitting riff would be downplayed to soft-rock proportions, an organ replaced with glitchy samples and vocals phrased differently throughout. I literally put down Saffron Songs and all Telenovela music for a month just to come to it fresh. When I did come back, I found a pop record I love more than any other this year (excluding Panda Bear). It completely baffles me that Telenovela has never been fully embraced by the Athens community, a city that's built its reputation on pop music. Only a few in that town seem to get it: Telenovela writes ridiculously smart pop songs laced with genuine surprises and clever allusions to pop music history.

18. Dirty Projectors- Rise Above [Dead Oceans]
At some point, Rise Above becomes more than David Longstreth’s odd re-imagining of a Black Flag cassette he only half-remembers, and instead he once again proves his warped pop genius in polyrhythmic vocal parts, gospel leanings and anarchistic (oh! There’s the Black Flag!) music philosophy.

19. Erik Friedlander- Block Ice & Propane [Skipstone]
Simple, yet multi-faceted solo cello recordings that rely more on the pluck than the bow. Friedlander didn't get nearly as much attention for this record as he should have.

20. Slow Six- Nor'easter [New Albion]
Instrumental post-rock has shamelessly cribbed the moods and predictable climaxes from modern chamber music and vice versa, but rarely do the two meet on the same terms. Heck, if the Slow Six ensemble can get a record on a respected neo-classical imprint like New Albion, they must be doing something right, which is why I checked them out. Nor'easter is full of dense, yet polymorphic arrangements, propelled by strings and an electric guitar that prefers to add textures rather than set a defining melody.

21. Jandek- Manhattan Tuesday [Corwood Industries]
Sounds like organist Ray Manzurek (The Doors) got a dark, ambient jazz band to back him up, which is pretty much what this live recording is – the "Representative from Corwood" on organ, Loren Connors on guitar, Chris Corsano on drums and Matt Heyner (Cold Bleak Heat) on bass. Excellently moody and psychedelic blues.

22. Damon & Naomi- Within These Walls [20/20/20]
One of those groups that consistently releases great material, but hardly ever something that merits superfluous praise. But the dreamy folk-pop duo (again, with the stunning hands of Michio Kurihara on guitar) has never been about the superfluous – just subtle, slightly Adult Contemporary songwriting. (Proof that I'm slowly turning into an easy-listening dude.)

23. Loren Connors- Hymn of the North Star [Family Vineyard]
The tape hiss is as audible as Connors’ soft blues musings, which is annoying on vinyl, especially since I need a new needle, but still, it’s Loren Connors, one of my biggest inspirations. This is his first solo guitar work in a while and one of his most sparse improvisations, thus far. The notes linger into silence, resting with angelic weight, tangible and ethereal as if the spirits he paints have found their kingdom for the first time.

24. Robert Wyatt- Comicopera [Domino]
It’s really all about Robert Wyatt’s voice, a fragile sound that can break your heart just as soon as it would rip it out. (Side note: When did Domino Records become so cool, releasing records by Wyatt and Steve Reid and reissues from Sebadoh and Young Marble Giants?)

25. His Name is Alive- Xmmer [Silver Mountain]
Warn Defever really has a really great ear for pop music even when the instrumentation, the influences and the rhythms suggest otherwise. On some cuts, he really lets loose with some Western Africa guitar riffs and Afrobeat horn arrangements. I get the feeling this is kind the record he's been wanting to make for a while. Also worth noting: His Name is Alive's killer tribute to free-jazz saxophonist Marion Brown, Sweet Earth Flower.

26. Tinariwen- Aman Iman: Water is Life [Wolrd Village]
More electric desert blues I loved this year. Aman Iman's cleaner production allows those winding guitar lines to shine with rhythms that drone in ecstasy.

27. Radiohead- In Rainbows [self-released, kind of]
I guess I’m including Radiohead out of obligation. While In Rainbows is technically a proficient record, brilliantly promoted and can contend with almost any other Radiohead album on a fresh listen, it’s the fact that it seems to cull pieces of their discography to remake old legends that bothers me a bit. Now, bands have looked back at their work and succeeded in finding new ways to discover old sounds, but I don’t get that distinction here. Nevertheless, it’s a good album, one that will get repeated listens.

28. Serpent Throne- Ride Devil Ride [self-released]
I really can't think of a better idea than to record the soundtrack to a lost '70s biker b-movie, even better yet, one that doesn't exist! Serpent Throne worships at the proto-metal throne of Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer and King Crimson, hard rocking through nine hell-blazing instrumentals. You half expect Ozzy himself to come in wailing at any moment. I think I listened to Ride Devil Ride every single day this past summer.

29. Yeasayer- All Hour Cymbals [We Are Free]
An impressive debut, no doubt, from these Brooklynites. Talking Heads rhythms run through a fish-eye lens all heaped up in the energy of a gospel choir or a Roxy Music LP. The band gets a little too serious on the second half of the CD, so that’s when I check out, but I’m all about "2080" and "Sunrise."

30. The Weakerthans- Reunion Tour [Epitaph]
I suppose my reasons for liking this record are more personal than aesthetic, but John K. Samson continues to be an under-appreciated lyricist and songwriter, even though continued press suggests otherwise. He decided to be a storyteller rather than a confessor, and his stories are tied to human emotion and thought more than ever.

Ettrick- Feeder of Ravens [Not Not Fun]
Total destruction thrash-jazz that's eerily in control of its chaotic path.
Pissed Jeans- Hope for Men [Sub Pop]
My friend Zach said it best: "It sounds like everything he screams is just entirely foul."
Tuxedomoon- Vapour Trails [Cramboy]
How can outer-space smooth-jazz ever possibly sound this good?
Tigersmilk- Android Love Cry [Family Vineyard]
Rob Mazurek's challenging jazz project continues to astound.
Dinosaur Jr.- Beyond [Fat Possum]
A credible reunion album? Nah, couldn't be.

Jay Reatard- Blood Visions [In the Red, 2006]
If only I had found this album at the end of last year, it would've been right up there with Scott Walker's The Drift and Harvey Milk's Special Wishes. One of the best punk records I've heard in a long time.
Neil Young- After the Gold Rush [Reprise, 1970]
Neil said just about everything I needed to hear this past fall.
Bob Dylan- Highway 61 Revisited [Columbia, 1965]
Richard and Linda Thompson- I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight [Island, 1974]
Betty Davis- Betty Davis [1973; Light in the Attic reissue, 2007]
The Trees Community- The Christ Tree [Pomegranate, 1975; Dark Holler reissue, 2007]
Kinda confirmed that I'm interested in studying the relationship of worship and music in a holistic context. A record that realizes that music from all the world is blessed to be used for praise.
V/A- When the Levee Breaks, Mississippi Blues - Rare Cuts 1926-41 [JSP, 2007]
My occasional obsession with old blues music sourced from crackly vinyl continued this year courtesy of the amazing JSP reissue label.
Young Marble Giants- Colossal Youth & Collected Works [Rough Trade, 1984; box set reissue, 2007]
Post-punk as minimalism. Great music I never knew about until this reissue.
Harvey Milk- The Pleaser [Reproductive, 2000; Relapse reissue, 2007]
Honestly, one of the best rock 'n' roll records ever made.
Culture- Two Sevens Clash [Shanachie, 1978; reissue, 2007]
2007: The Year Lars actually got into reggae music. See below also.
Dennis Alcapone- Forever Version [Heartbeat, 1971; reissue, 2007]

Long Legged Woman "Scalpels in the Sky" (from Delay 2007) [Pollen Season]
A psychedelic-pop dirge wrapped in the murkiest pump organ melody and acoustic guitars circling like scavengers. The prettiest song these psych-noise jerks have ever made.
Caribou "Melody Day" (from Andorra) [Merge]
The drum fills on this song are out of this world.
Michio Kurihara "Pendulum on a G-String-The Last Cicada" (from Sunset Notes) [20/20/20]
Best guitarist in the dimension.
ellul "Esophagus" (from ellul) [Sounds Are Active]
The last minute and half of this song is perfect.
Starflyer 59 "Minor Keys" (from Ghosts of the Future 7" series) [Burnt Toast Vinyl]
Gives me hope after the total bummer that was My Island.
Feist "1234" (from The Reminder) [Interscope]
Yes, like on the iPod commercial. So sue me.

Blues Control- Puff [Woodsist]
Bloated Casio psychedelics? Just don't see what all the fuss is about.
Soul-Junk- 1959 [Quiver Society]
Literally, I don't get this one. Weird even by Soul-Junk's standards.
Sally Shapiro- Disco Romance [Paper Bag]
I really wanted this to be my new favorite dance record, but it's just so... boring. Cutesy vocals are all fine and good, but at least on Anniemal the producers put some bomb beats behind her.

Stars of the Lid - ... and their Refinement of the Decline [Kranky]
Future Rapper- Land of A Thousand Rappers - Vol 1: Fall of the Pillars [Unusual Animals/Asthmatic Kitty]
Vic Chesnutt- North Star Deserter [Constellation]
Pink Reason- Cleaning the Mirror [Siltbreeze]


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