12.19.2007

Twenty from 2007

Here are 20 of the best songs I heard first in 2007. I haven't listened as widely this year as in years past because I spent a good deal of time listening to my favorite records over and over and over. I wouldn't change a thing. I'm not a critic, just a lover of good sounds so don't do that ever-so postmodern critique-the-critic thing, please? If you see a little pink star next to an album name, it's one of my favorites for the year. Lastly, the list isn't in order of greatness - rather I tried to create a nice flow for listening. Click here to download the whole thing.

"Fake Empire" The National (The Boxer*)
Bluebirds on our shoulders
The momentum that builds as this song progresses is nothing short of stunning. Starting with a simple rhythmic piano framework, slight atmospherics, and soothing vocals, it grows and grows. Four on the floor and snare drum bursts signal a final warning before the train leaves the station. At its climax, we're graced with a swirling arrangement of horns, chugging electric guitars, and exquisite drumming. The lyrics are at once nostalgic and evasive - like seeing a friendly face you know but can't place.

"Flashing Lights" Kanye West (Graduation*)
Sweetheart we hardly talk I was doing my thing
Kanye's Graduation is a record that needed to grow on me. I didn't really enjoy it much until the 5th or 6th listen. "Flashing Lights" in particular was among my least favorite songs during those initial listens. Ahhhh, but no more! Something about the way the synth riff hits me that get's me all juiced up (also recalling Timbaland's production of JT's "My Love" that has a similar effect on me). I'm not sure that there's anything cohesive going on here lyrically, but the wordplay alone (in the moment) offers up some delicious goodness. This is Kanye in the pocket, performing the kind of laid-back track that suits his flow best - nor forced or contrived, just Kanye.

"Mapped By What Surrounded Them" The Twilight Sad (Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters*)
Just another child-like ghost
The Twilight Sad's 14 Summers is my favorite record of the year. The songs manage to be dramatic without pretension, intense but not heavy, lovely without coming off wimpy. "Mapped" in particular highlights both the atmospheric "live" fullness of the band as well as the captivating quiet moments where what's his name's heavy Scottish accent grips me like a vice as I brace myself for the next raw explosion. The amount of energy being expended by the drummer and singer alone (during their july show at Schubas) was enough to power 3 or 4 of your average complacent hipster indie rock bands. Damn fine music!

"And You Lied To Me" Besnard Lakes (The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse*)
You aren't even who you said you are
A month ago I had an incredibly vivid dream. In the dream I went with several friends to see a live performance. We walked into the venue - a big square legion hall with linoleum floors, an old wooden bar, and round laminate tables with cafeteria chairs. People filled the tables and stood along the dark velvet walls. The sound was thick and echoey and totally encompassed the room. The band (or rather ensemble) was spread throughout the venue - here a table a singers, there a table of percussionists, horn players, strings, guitarists... everywhere someone playing an instrument or singing. The line between spectator and participant was blurred - everyone was making music, adding to the sound in perfect tune and time. I can remember vividly the leadmost singer, sitting at a table near me, cradling something that looked like scotch, belting out his tune with a mighty voice. This song, "And You Lied To Me," is the song performed in my dream. "The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse" is one of my favorites this year. To me it represents what Low might have evolved into.

"Your Name My Game" Herman Düne (Giant*)
Even the trees call your name
Herman Düne, the only band that gets two tracks on my list. I love this band. "Giant" is a wonderful record, even though it's a bit long (and as yet unreleased in the states!). I prefer David-Ivar's tunes, but all the songs have merit. David's songs end up in three general categories: happy-fun-pop, folksy-snaps, moody-gypsy. This tune falls into the "moody-gypsy" category, and it's got a vibe that keeps you tapping and snapping along while David sings about a baboon in a cage that continues to call out your name even though he's drugged up. It's gorgeous, genuinely beautiful. Thank goodness "Giant" isn't recorded in mono (like 2005's "Not On Top") because with the drums and percussion, the groovy bass, ukulele strums... mmmm. Musically, what tips the scales for this song are the female backup vocals and the moments where electric guitar comes forward in the mix.

"Charlie, Last Name Wilson" Charlie Wilson (Charlie, Last Name Wilson)
I ain't got nobody to ride in my new coupe with
What good is all the money and fame without a woman to share it with? This age-old question is at the heart of Wilson's magical R&B tune. I first heard this song in a cab. Three days later I was still humming the hook, trying to remember the dude's name so I could steal it from the internet. It's completely over-the-top - lyrically, it takes ridiculousness to such an extreme level that it boomerangs back at itself. Near the end, Charlie's ad-lib vocalizations are priceless (he offers his number, his manager's number, his studio's number, even his momma's number). It's VERY catchy, so beware, you'll be singing this in the shower in no time - brilliant!

"Ocean of Noise" The Arcade Fire (Neon Bible*)
But all the reasons I gave were just lies
It's rare that my initial favorite on a record is the one that stands out nearly a year later. I love this one for the drama, the theatrical nature of it. It's hard for me not to imagine this song being performed in an old theatre, dimly lit. The protagonist is singing to himself and writing a letter at the same time. The music rises and falls like an undulating sea. While the protagonist seems to be aware of the music, it's not until it rises completely over his head that he lets it really move him. A lot is going on under the surface here - both lyrically and musically. There's a measure of uncertainty in relationships and faith (this I can relate to) but also a resounding and defiant hope (which also strikes a chord).

"Resurrection Fern" Iron & Wine (The Shepherd's Dog)
Like stubborn boys with big green eyes
I can say without shame that if this song hadn't been recorded with a pedal steel in the mix it wouldn't have made it on the list. There's nothing particularly amazing about this song - we've heard it before. It's familiar and comfortable. Listening to it reminds me of coming in from having just shoveled the driveway and sidewalk of my boyhood home. Shedding my wet and frozen clothes, i've propped myself up at the kitchen bar for a cup of microwaved hot chocolate. It's warm and good and it isn't asking much, which is perfectly okay with me.

"Breathe In, Breathe Out" Fulton Lights (S/T*)
Maybe it was sympathy
Fulton Lights is the cinematic music of Andrew Spencer Goldman. I got hooked on this song in March, when I posted this to the blog:
Last night i was at an indoor waterpark in rockford illinois when zion got beaned in the face by a ball. Of course it was past his bedtime and i found myself consoling a 3-year-old screaming child in the middle of wet chaos. After a few minutes of holding him, stroking his head, and singing the chorus of this song over and over he was calmed and ready for another swim.
The song continues to grow on me. The production is so layered and rich. I imagine the basic song as a christmas tree, with strings of lights and a hundred little ornaments of different shapes and sizes hanging on it. It's in your bay window and I'm viewing it from the sidewalk.

"Skinny Love" Bon Iver (For Emma, Forever Ago)
Who the hell was I?
As humble and unassuming as any other lo-fi DIY indie folk singer-songwriter - but with grit and blood. The soul has not yet been sold. You can almost feel the cold air, the chopping of wood, the rhythms of work and rest. There's something so real and tangible here - the feeling that in that in some parallel universe one could break a piece off this tune and eat it.

"Summer's Life" The Shaky Hands (S/T)
And I wonder what happened
I'm a sucker for folk-stomps. This song pulsates and jangles its way down a rickety track without loosing any steam. There's nothing earth-shaking about any of it. It's neither novel or overtly derivative, it's just an honest song with good intentions and hand claps. If you can listen to this without recalling the golden moments of your youth and tapping your foot you're as cold and hard as The Saint of Killers and nothing can be done for you.

"This Year" Mountain Goats (The Sunset Tree)
The scene ends badly as you might imagine
Somehow John Darnielle manages to perfectly capture the subtle mixture of driving angst, rebelling, lust and hope that comprise a day in the life of any average young man. Never mind that the chorus is the perfect anthem for anyone going through a less-than-stellar season of life. There's something universal and compelling about blind hope in the face of actual pain (teenage or otherwise). This is the new metal, a song that can make me shake my fist at the sky whilst shedding a tear.

"I Feel It All" Feist (The Reminder*)
I'll be the one to break my heart
This song embodied late spring and early summer for me. Feist's unbelievable sexy voice and the bouncy pop-fun vibe of the tune is a delight. Does my love for this tune and Feist's record betray the fact that I am now thirty-something? Who cares??? There's something about this song - it sounds happy - it is happy. But the lyrics, the mood beneath the surface... not so happy. Tragic, even. Much of my summer could be described this way. As the summer broke open I hit the street with a new bike, a new name, and a mission to spread random color and delight on this city's dilapidated facade. Brightening up the surface of things isn't the worst crime.

"2080" Yeasayer (All Hour Cymbals)
It's a new year, I'm glad to be here
There's a lot going on with this one. Thick and sugary reverberated production, pop harmonies, guitars and drums. However, without the amazing turn this song takes at 2:50 it would be commonplace, another shrub on the indie rock landscape. The way the music breaks down to a shouting chant punctuated with "Yeah, yeah!" and a string of lyrics (the content of which i have no intention of tracking down cause who really cares, right?) Thank god this breakdown happens again at 4:10. I'm making it sound as if I don't enjoy the bread and butter of this song - which isn't true at all. The two parts live together perfectly - the chanting would be silly by itself, and the rest would be commonplace without the breaks.

"Alright (Ratatat Remix)" Memphis Bleek (Ratatat Remixes Vol.2*)
Watchin' for cops again
This year's new crop of Ratatat hip-hop remixes are all completely amazing, but Bleek's "Alright" is the cream. MB's flow sounds laid-back and smooth on the non-remix album version of this track. Ratatat transforms this song and MB's vocal performance into a punchy club banger that evokes WAY more bravado than its source. This isn't a novel mash-up, it's a reinvention that takes the SONG to a higher level. Ratatat pulls equally from hip-hop production (note the piano parts) and it's own brand of post punk indie dance funk whatever. Another noteworthy Ratatat hip-hop remix: "Three Kings."

"Man's World" Guilty Simpson (Single)
Surely it's the reason there's limited love with us
This track comes from the amazing Stones Throw podcast, and it has me salivating for a full-length Guilty Simpson release. This fairly straightforward hip-hop track with luscious Jay Dilla production is well written and incisive. GS tells his specific "dad" story (much of which I CAN'T relate with) - but he does it in a way that tugs on universal father/son issues. He eloquently works his way through memory, angst, hope, pride, and longing - and it's real... it's just real. I can feel that.

"The People (Ft. Dwele)" Common (Finding Forever*)
Sometimes we find peace in beats and breaks
Common's "Finding Forever" is a phenomenal record. For more than a month I listened to it more than 4 times a week - so it was difficult to choose a favorite. I landed on "The People" because it's not only a production masterpiece, it's lyrically cohesive. The music track starts sparse but gets pretty busy, and most MCs would get lost in the brilliant interplay between the gyrating bass track, winds, and the guitar (or is that a keyboard) track that build during the verses. Not Common - he OWNS this track. Everything comes together with a thick, jaggety bounce. Conscious confidence.

"Fire" 50 Cent (Curtis)
I go back to the basics and break it all the way all the way down
This is a straight-up club banger. I can't help myself. There's the requisite amount of bravado and posturing. The beat, the track, the production (whatever) is hot. A guilty pleasure for sure. He replies to his detractors - "you can hate this but face it B.I.G. and Tupac just ain't around," and it's true. Who else can we turn to for this level of bombastic hoopla?

"Inspiration" D*R*I (Smoke Rings)
On the night I wait and pray for you
It's the year of my father's birth and someone's just stopped into a filling station for a new pack of smokes. Sure this song is retro, but it's valor isn't in the novelty of throwback. It's a good tune and a nostalgic production, mixing simple pop with a digital influence. The singer is properly androgynous and D.R.I has enough wisdom to keep this gem under three minutes long. Swooning.

"Take Him Back to NYC" Herman Düne (Giant*)
It's such a stupid stupidity
David-Ivar Herman Düne directs, out loud, the movements of the band and the backup singers with an indirect enthusiasm. It's a love song for the city of New York and i understand. It's loungy, lovely, laid-back, romantic, absurd, and completely sensible. That's one of the Herman Düne's great strengths - sensible absurdity.

Honorable Mention Mixtape:

"Stray Bullets (DJ Rhettmatic Mix)" Guilty Simpson (Mixtape)
C'mon, it's a party, everybody!
The Stones Throw podcast is the best music podcast i've run across. They continually serve up great DJ mixes and whatnot. This mix is two of my favorites - DJ Rhettmatic and Guilty Simpson. Enjoy!

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4 Comments:

Anonymous b'dawg said...

This is some damn fine writing! It's not just a complement to the mix, but a completely enjoyable element in and of itself. Nice job.

12/20/2007  
Blogger JVO said...

Like I told you before, writing about music is the easiest thing to do poorly. Not your problem.

Cool picks, and well-articulated "liner notes." Keep doing this on an annual basis so I can figure out what I've missed!

12/28/2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found you via hypem. Dear God, you are freaken' talented at writing. Sharing the same taste in music is pretty nice too, I guess. Write on.

12/29/2007  
Blogger beaciest said...

I stumbled across this blog today, via Hypemachine, searching for some Herman Dune to listen to at lunch in the office!
It's a damn fine top 20 list and it makes you think, as time has gone on, that 2007 was a good year for music.
I just got back from the End of the Road Festival in Dorset, England, and it could have benefited from some of these artists, particularly a return performance by Herman Dune.
I agree with the comment about the articulate writing - so many people these days don't give a thought to writing anything less than superficial nonsense. You've come up with some evocative imagery - I came across a quote from Elvis Costello the other day, who was scathing about paid reviewers: "writing about music is like dancing to architecture," he said. But I think he'd have a wry smile looking over these comments.
Recuerdos, Stevie Disco

9/17/2008  

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