Thursday, January 3, 2008

"Boys Becoming Men, Men Becoming Wolves..."

Seriously, if I ever try to add images to a post in the future, feel free to shoot me in the face...

Also: in the words of Frank Costanza: "I'm back, baby!"

2007 Music: A Completely Objective Year in Review

I first did this when I was living in Korea in 2005 for Sarah's blog (you can download that list right here).

The original test is lifted more or less (more) completely from my '05 post on the subject and is as follows:

Criteria:


1. To qualify, a album needs to be good (more or less) from start to finish. Pretty straightforward. Needing to skip a track here or there is acceptable, but I'm not willing to consider an album that consists of a hit track surrounded by 11 or so forgettable tunes. The absolute best thing about a consistently good album is that, after repeated listens, I'm always finding new tracks, meaning the CD actually improves over time.

2. Along those lines, the album needs to have staying power. It's always pissed me off that the Oscar nominations often come down to when certain pictures were released (i.e. films that are released at the start of the year are at a decided disadvantage because they are not fresh in the minds of the voters). The best example of this is Crash (for me, the best film of the year...and by a wide margin) that somehow only got two Golden Globe nominations and is likely to get screwed over with the Oscar nominations, too. [Note: OK, so it turns out I was wrong about this one. Damn you, hindsight!] Yet, with music, I think this kind of makes sense. If you're not coming back to an album from, say, February, it's probably not as good as you initially thought. This factor really worked against a couple of albums on my list (specifically Coldplay and, to a much lesser degree, Bright Eyes).

3. As always (and it's so obvious it's barely even worth mentioning), this list is horribly biased. For as long as I can remember, I get into a groove of listening to a certain CD while doing a specific activity and I will, from that point forward, forever associate said activity with said CD. Needless to say, these albums will have a special place in my heart. This year was no different. I listened to the Bright Eyes double disc and more or less constantly for a month while studying for the LSAT in my backyard. And Speak For Yourself, Set Yourself On Fire, and Funeral were in heavy, heavy rotation my first month in Korea.

[In case you're curious, other permanently linked CDs: a month long stretch in 2004 where I almost only listened to Let Go by Frou Frou, New Slang and Caring is Creepy by The Shins (for reasons I'd rather not go into); writing a 35 page paper in 2002 while holed up at my aunt and uncle's house (I was house-sitting) while only listening to A Rush of Blood to the Head (I named the paper after the album), Avalanche by Matthew Good, and Rocking the Suburbs by Ben Folds; Dr. Dre's The Chronic and Snoop's Doggystyle in the summer of 1994 (when I first discovered drinking); and my earliest (and most embarrassing) memory of this: listening (on tape!) to Amy Grant's Heart in Motion (specifically Every Heartbeat, which I positively adored when I was 12) while reading Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent wayyyy back in 1991. Good times.]

At any rate, I realize that I probably cannot rationally rank these albums, so they'll probably be a bit higher on the list than they perhaps should be. I'm fine with that.

While I neglected to compile a list for '06, my top 10 would've been:

1. Boys and Girls in America by the Hold Steady
2. Silent Shout by The Knife
3. Eyes Open by Snow Patrol
4. Everything All the Time by Band of Horses
5. 9 by Damien Rice
6. Show Your Bones by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
7. The Eraser by Thom Yorke
8. Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio
9. Carnavas by Silversun Pickups
10. The Life Pursuit by Belle and Sebastian

With that, onto 2007 albums:

Things I wish were a bit better: Icky Thump by The White Stripes (saw them live this summer at the JLC--thanks, Misha!--and they, predictably, fucking rocked. But they rocked in large part because they played a lot of old stuff, including a couple tracks from my favorite album of theirs, Get Behind Me Satan. IT had some cool riffs but also several tracks that I felt compelled to skip they were so bad. On the whole, the album didn't do much for me); Spirit If... by Kevin Drew (everyone who knows my taste in music knows that I'm completely in the tank for Broken Social Scene, so I had high hopes for this solo effort. The result? A not bad but not nearly as sonically pleasing sound. Rarely a week goes by that I don't listen to a BSS album, but I think I've run through Spirit If... twice (if that) since it came out.); Year Zero by NIN (cool concept, great build-up, weak album. Too noisy by half--yes, I realize it's a NIN album--and a step back from With Teeth, Reznor's terrific '05 disc); Echoes, Silence, Patience, & Grace by Foo Fighters (love "The Pretender" as a single, but I'm not blown away by this--I think--completely unmemorable album. 5 Grammy nominations? Really?? This breaks my rule of acknowledging the Grammys as anything other than a ridiculous farce, but: I'm kind of disappointed by this. Why give this album so much cred while ignoring the vastly superior Skin and Bones acoustic double disc?), The Boy With No Name by Travis (meh); Sky Blue Sky by Wilco (meh plus).

Things I wish were a lot better:
All the Lost Souls by James Blunt (it was probably wrong of me to like Back to Bedlam, but, dammit, I kind of did, but his follow up album was impossibly bad); Hospital Music by Matthew Good (utterly unmemorable, which is about as critical as I can be of someone who is responsible for three albums--Underdogs, Beautiful Midnight, and Avalanche--in my all-time top 50. He seemed to mail this one in, which is pretty disappointing.)

Five that just missed the Top 20:

25. Cease to Begin by Band of Horses: There's a fine line between having a nice voice that conveys beautiful things and that just happens to be high-pitched and...simply being screetchy. On Everything All the Time, Ben Bridwell landed squarely on the pretty side of things, and the result was an outstanding album. Here? Well, I think you know where I'm going with this. Just a bit too shrill for my liking. (Note: I think this is what has prevented me from totally embracing My Morning Jacket. They produce--as Ryan is fond of saving--tons of tasty riffs, but I'm still hung up on the vocals.)

24. Hvarf/Heim by Sigur Ros: Sorry, Sarah! While I dig the instrumentation, I've come to dread the vocals (there's only so much Icelandic falsetto and I can handle).

23. Close to Paradise by Patrick Watson: OK, Polaris Prize, maybe it's time for you to pack it up. It's bad enough that the-virtually-unlistenable-to Final Fantasy (seriously, give his album--the improbably named He Poos Clouds--a shot if you don't believe me) took down the '06 award over four far worthier candidates (The New Pornographers, Metric, Wolf Parade, and, of course, Broken Social Scene), but now Watson's OK-but-hardly-memorable record has beaten out Feist and Tegan and Sara for this year's award? Madness. [Note: Rob notes on this blog that this album came out in 2006 and dammit if he isn't correct (Oct. 3, 2006). Nevertheless, I'm keeping it here. So there.]

22. Magic by Bruce Springsteen: sorry, Shuk! This one just doesn't quite do it for me. Is it wrong that I'd rather listen to the Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America (where they're essentially ripping off Springsteen) than the Boss himself at this stage? Oh. Also: the fact that Entertainment Weekly named this album the best of '07, like, almost out of hand, really drives me crazy. (Imagined editors meeting: "ok, we need to do a top ten for the year--did Paul McCartney, Springsteen, Santana, or Steely Dan release an album? They did!? Awesome. No, no, I don't need to listen to them--I'm sure they're terrific discs. Now, let's just throw on Kanye to show that we're totally hip and we're halfway home! This is, like, supereasy! Who wants to order Chinese?")

21. In Our Bedroom After the War by Stars:
great, great title; sleep-inducing album. This is especially disheartening in light of their previous effort (Set Yourself on Fire) being my absolute favorite album of 2004. This, in turn, brings up a troubling trend, mainly: I can't quite call it a Sophomore Slump since several of these artists have been around for a while, but it's like that. The following artists released albums in '07 that were markedly inferior to their previous album: Sigur Ros, Stars, Spoon, Bloc Party, Fountains of Wayne, The Arcade Fire, Editors, Band of Horses, Jose Gonzales, The White Stripes, Matthew Good, Kenna, Nine Inch Nails).

(Finally...) The Top 20 Albums:

20. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga by Spoon: not quite drinking the Kool-Aid (I wanted to say this once before the expression completely jumped the shark. Wait...that already happened? Shit.) on this one yet. While I don't begrudge Spoon their success--far from it, as I was thrilled to see them on SNL--they've been better. Yes, "The Underdog" is a terrific song (but better than "I Turn My Camera On"? Surely not), but the rest of the album? Not so much. In fact, in places, it's extremely aggravating (see: "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case," which I flat-out despise.) I'll stick with Gimme Fiction (especially) and Girls Can Tell, thanks.

19. The Shepherd's Dog by Iron and Wine:
When I was first introduced to Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine)--his slowed-down cover of "Such Great Heights"--I was significantly underwhelmed, and, consequently, steered clear of his first two albums. But this new one, which is far more upbeat, has made me re-consider everything else he's done.

18. Neon Bible by the Arcade Fire: what the hell, Arcade Fire? What. The. Hell? This wasn't supposed to happen! Neon Bible was supposed to be as good as (or, let's be realistic, slightly weaker than) Funeral, thus securing their position as "Canada's Best Band By Far." But, for whatever reason, this didn't happen. When I was perusing my iTunes library, I noticed something interesting with regards to Neon Bible. Go on, click on the link. Notice anything unusual? Anything? (Hint: check the play count). Everything I write for the remainder of this paragraph will simply be a verbal representation of those play count numbers, but I'll go ahead anyway: aside from "Keep the Car Running" (and, to a much lesser extent, "Intervention"--and, I suppose, "Black Mirror"), this isn't a very good album. Some ten months after first I first listened to the disc, I'm still trying to come to grips with this.

(Also worth noting: this is one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the year--with an overall score of 87 on Metacritic, it's their 7th-highest rated album of the year--which leads me to conclude either (a) reviewers haven't heard Funeral or The Arcade Fire EP--admittedly unlikely--and are thus unaware of how good this band can be; (b) they have heard the other albums and are simply overrating this current one; or (c) I'm being way too tough on the band.) (Note: it's three weeks later, and I'm absolutely positive it's (b).)

17. Wincing the Night Away by The Shins: No New Slang here or (even better) Caring is Creepy, but, surprisingly, this album is probably their most consistent offering yet. Now all they need is for Zach Braff to take another stab at directing (anything that keeps him away from the set of The Ex 2 is fine with me).

16. Last Light by Matt Pond PA: Bonus points here for also releasing If You Want Blood in '07, a listenable, if unremarkable EP. He may not be everyone's favorite--fun fact, if you mention MPPA's cover of "Champagne Supernova" on one of the OC soundtracks to Rob, he'll turn on his heels and stalk away--but he's turned out to be a pretty strong singer/songwriter (I do believe that even Rob enjoyed this CD). Pitchfork shit all over this one (giving it 3.7--note: not out of 5) and, in the process, reveals that Pond, in fact, now lives in Brooklyn (liar!), but despite all that I like pretty much everything on this disc, except for the excruciating"Taught to Look Away," where he does a duet with (I had to look it up) Neko Case (who is usually much better--and, to be fair, I think it's mostly Pond's fault) of New Pornographers fame, that is so bad that I've taken the virtually unprecedented step (at least for me) of deleting it from my iPod.

15. Proof of Youth by The Go! Team:
Still got it. I feel like this could've been packaged with 2005's Thunder, Lightning, Strike and would not have seemed at all out of place, which suggests that (a) they haven't really evolved as a group, but also: (b) TYS kicked some serious ass, so how can being mentioned in the same breath as it be a bad thing? I continue to be really impressed by this highly energetic band.

14. Alive 2007 by Daft Punk:
I'll come clean: I'm new to the Daft Punk scene...and kicking myself for not jumping on their bandwagon much earlier.

13. Is Is by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs:
Question: why did I put an EP on this list? Answer: shut up, that's why. Would be higher if it was longer, but I can't really fault a group for releasing a five-track album when every track kicks ass.

12. War Stories by Unkle:
Carrie introduced me to Unkle a few weeks back, and I'm very glad she did. Currently, I'm addicted to "Burn My Shadow," which features vocals from Ian Astbury (and a very cool Sawesque video starring Goran Visnij). Think of them as a better version of The Good, The Bad, & The Queen and you're on the right track.

11. All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone by Explosions in the Sky:
Furthering my theory that EITS is incapable of delivering a bad (or even average) album, this is another gem. My biggest complaint is that it isn't longer (I'll save you the trouble: that's what she said). This Austin quartet ("trio" sounds cooler, but such is life) remains my go-to "listening to while reading" band.

10. We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank by Modest Mouse:
something that I listened to constantly for the first two months after its release, but then came back to infrequently the rest of the year. There's an album like this--awesome out of the gate, but lacking in staying power--every year...and, for whatever reason, MM gets the title this year. Regardless, it's a solid outing, with "Dashboard" being one of my favorite five tracks of the year--go on, tell me you don't love driving when this song comes on in the car. I dare you.

9. The Boxer by The National:
before you ask: yes, it is mildly disconcerting that their lead singer sounds eerily like the frontman from the Crash Test Dummies (According to Wikipedia, Brad Roberts was CTD's lead singer, though I have no idea if this is true or not. Fun fact: also from Wikipedia: CTD's "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead", which appeared in Dumb and Dumber and is my favorite Dummies song, was actually a cover of XTC's 1992 tune of the same name. For whatever reason, I'm always shocked when songs that I assumed to be original turn out to be covers.) But, that aside, this is a terrific album, with particularly well-conceived lyrics (I'm partial to "Fake Empire" at the moment, but it changes from week to week.)

8. An End Has a Start by Editors:
I seem to like these guys more than...pretty much everyone else, which is a bit puzzling. No matter. I think this is a very solid follow up to The Back Room.

7. Easy Tiger by Ryan Adams:
I know, I know, I'm totally in the tank for this guy, but after two of his three 2005 albums turned out to be somewhat--much to my consternation--terrible (Jacksonville City Nights and 29), and a quiet (especially by his standards) 2006, I feel like I can wholeheartedly recommend this one. Bonus points for RA since he released an EP (Follow the Lights) late in the year that was also first-rate. And yes, this does fulfill my contractual obligation to mention him in every post.

6. Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem:
"I'm totally open to arguments that this album should be five places higher or off the list entirely as, months later, I'm still not quite sure what to make of it--although, in the last month, I've listened to this album more than anything else. Bonus points because LCD also released 45:33 (otherwise known as the Nike running track), which totally kicks ass" is what I wrote in November when I first placed this album at #14. I've been coming back to this album two or three times a week for the past two months...and it keeps getting stronger and stronger, as there are four or five tracks that could legitimately be considered great. To me, this is the breakthrough album of the year.

5. In Rainbows by Radiohead:
hey, remember Radiohead? Used to be one of the best bands in the world then got really pretentious and released three albums that were virtually indechiperable (indeed, practically unitelligible: see 1999-2004)? That must ring a bell. Turns out that they're still capable of being brilliant. Though this CD wins the "Gayest Album Title" in a landslide, that's really the only (semi-)legitimate criticism I can come up with, because, otherwise? It's technically perfect.

4. A Weekend in the City by Bloc Party: [Bias alert!] I've read all or parts of a half-dozen "Best Of Music" lists and this album is conspicuously absent from all of them which is both a shame and completely unfair. It seems pretty clear that people are comparing this--obviously unfavourably--to Silent Alarm (which I will do in just a second), and failing to acknowledge that it stands up just fine on its own. For my part, it actually physically pains me to rank this even this low, but I'd be lying if I said that it deserved to be higher. I've come to loathe the criticism that an album is "too polished" (unless it's applying to boy bands), mostly because I think it's something you say when you review something knowing full well that you want to hate it but then it turns out you actually kinda like but you still feel the need to say something snarky, so I'll steer clear of saying that outright, but there's no denying that Silent Alarm (their first release, which was my album of the year for '05, and one of my favorite CDs ever) had a rawness, a kinetic quality, a passion to it that A Weekend in the City undeniably lacks. It's not so much that AWITC is too polished so much as, compared to its immediate predecessor, it's a little lifeless (which is different, I feel the need to point out, than "dull"). For instance, there were three songs on Silent Alarm that I fell in love with at three different points over a year and a half ("Banquet," after hearing it on Shuk's radio show in the early summer of '05; "Plans"--particularly an acoustic version I stumbled upon--in Australia in early '06; and "This Modern Love" in the summer of '07, after it popped up unexpectedly in the season one finale of Howq I Met Your Mother. Barring some sort of miracle, there's roughly a 0% chance of this happening with AWITC).

As this is shaping up to be the most downbeat review of a Top 5 album ever, I feel compelled to move on to the things that I really like about the album: when you feel like brooding, there's nothing that can top this album. (That's it? Really?? It would appear so. I honestly can't think of anything else at the moment except to say that it's a really good--if not great--album that deserves more credit than it received.) Bonus points to the band for releasing the competent, if unremarkable, Flux EP, this fall. I don't exactly want them to become a techno band, but, based on the lead track off the EP, it certainly seems as if they could pull it off if they wanted to.

3. The Reminder by Feist:
For most of the year, I thought that this would easily be my favorite album of '07, but it got passed in Q4. Nonetheless, this is a terrific disc. The Reminder also has the dubious distinction of inspiring the single most hilarious criticism of an album in 2007, courtesy of my father. Earlier in the year, I burned a copy for mom and dad, expecting them to love it, only to have my father inform me that, while he enjoyed it, he found that there was entirely "too much rhythmic clapping on the album" for his liking. And, really, how can you argue with that logic?

2. Challengers
by The New Pornographers: Other than A Weekend in the City, I was looking forward to this album more than anything else...and I'm happy to report that it did not disappoint. There isn't a weak track here, not to mention several standouts: Myriad Harbor, My Rights Versus Yours, and Challenger (which is so good that it was one of only two songs this year that I listened to for an hour straight at one point--the other one is coming up.)

1. The Con by Tegan and Sara: Believe me, I'm probably as surprised (or more) as you are that this ended up at #1, but I have to say: it's really, really fucking good. What's more: there's absolutely no reason it should be, considering that the two girls composed and recorded this album in different time zones. Regardless, it's terrific, with the track "The Con" being, in my estimation, an absolutely perfect song. (Go on, put it on, I know you want to.) From it's poetic opening ("I listened in, yes I'm guilty of this you should know. I brokedown and wrote you back before you had a chance to"--which conveys so much more than you'd ever expect a song to), to the build up ("I'm capsized on the edge of safe.."), to the killer escalating refrain ("nobody nobody nobody") I could (indeed have) listen(ed) to this song all day. And the entire album--a mere 37 minutes long--is pure bliss. I just plain love it. (shut up, you're babbling.) As an added bonus, since I assumed that I didn't like T+S prior to this year, I now have the pleasure of going back and listening to their entire catalogue. (Score!) One standout is their excellent cover of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" off of Songs for Christoff. I highly recommend.

9 comments:

RT Murphy said...

Glad to have you back and posting, Wasko! Hope Ireland was nice. I think we're in Family Law and Crim Pro together, any chance of you coming to class this semester?

But seriously. Great post, and you hit all the major bases as far as I'm concerned. I think I'll do up an entry of my own, but more subjective (my Top Musical Discoveries of 2007)- but that'll have to wait until I'm back in Tron and reunited with my mp3 collection.

Kyle Wasko said...

Still in Ireland, actually, but managed to find my way to a computer. Having a blast. Drinking--ironically...or, more accurately, coincidentally--dozens and dozens of pints of Murphy's Ale.

I'm thinking about putting up a playlist of my fave tracks of '07, much like your mid-December sets.

Will miss Monday and Tuesday (I plan to sleep for 24 hours straight), but I'll be there for the rest of the week. Coming to class is definitely in the cards for '08.

Do you get back on the weekend? I assume you're having a good time. Happy New Year, of course.

The R.O.B. said...

First off, always enjoy your writing. Still waiting for your thoughts on Kid Nation.

Second off, did you shave half your head, get something pierced and turn into a lesbian while you were in Ireland? How the F. is Tegan and Sara the best album of the year?!?!?!

Completely agree with your takes on Stars, Band of Horses and Springsteen (I think I have a part of my brain that disallows me from enjoying any album my father has bought since he went to the darkside and albums by both Cher and Shania Twain in the last 8 years).

Agree that Final Fantasy is unlistentoable (on record), inexplicably he is OUTSTANDING live; really think you ought to listen to Patrick Watson 2-3-4 more times ... its well worth it. Its an album that I think you need to become familiar with to enjoy - I found this with BSS s/t.

Think you'd really enjoy: Jens Lekman, Ohbjiou, Hansome Furs, David Vandervelde.

Happy New Year.

RT Murphy said...

I figured you might still be there, but my statements can still be read as technically correct (the best kind of correct!). I just got into the Tron this morning at 8AM, and am now downloading your 2006 and 2007 recommendations (except the ones I already had, and Ryan Adams). Got to find some way to run out this 20 gigs of bandwidth before tomorrow night!

A reminder to keep an eye on the Tax waitlist. If you get in, let me know, as I might be soon after!

Sean said...

I agree with most of your list(s), although I suspect that you: (1) are being too hard on Arcade Fire and their critics, (2) have bought too heavily into all that is Feist, and (3)have too strong a penchant for assembling lists.

If you want any easy way to share your musical interests with your readers, just create a playlist at last.fm and add their widget to your blog.

Also, feel free to follow me on Twitter (twitter.com/seanbest). My goal is to get a couple smart people following each other in an attempt to save the application from its own futility...

Sean said...

Follow up: I totally disagree with your comments on Radiohead, more particular, your heavy-handed dismissal of their last couple of albums. I share your sentiments about LCD Soundsystem. I think you need to find some room in one of your lists (breakthrough album?) for TV on The Radio, "Return to Cookie Mountain."

Kyle Wasko said...

I never could get behind Kid A and Amnesiac was more of the same (literally, I just discovered; that album apparently came out of the Kid A recording session). Hail to the Thief was decent, but too overtly political for my liking and--There, There aside--not terribly memorable. In Rainbows, for me, is more of a return to form (The Bends andOK Computer being two of my favorite albums ever). That said, Radiohead has to be one of the most polarizing bands ever, so I can see how someone might dig their electronic sound.

I really like TV on the Radio, but Cookie Mountain came out in September '06 (I looked when I was preparing this list). It did make my best of 'O6 list though (see near top of the post.)

I'll be sure to follow you on Twitter.

More to the point, where is Shuk to weigh in on all of this? Did I offend with my flippant remarks re: The Boss?

Sean said...

I agree about how divisive "Kid A" & "Amnesiac" are. I myself had to listen to Kid A about ten times before I could cut through the seemingly impenetrable wall of sound.

You are entirely correct about the release date of TVOTRs "Return to Cookie Mountain." My bad.

Twitter is a debased medium. Why, oh why, do we insist on using it?

Sean said...

Last post on this topic. You might be interested in A.V. Club's "The Least Essential Albums Of 2007"

http://www.avclub.com/content/node/71861