Monday, December 31, 2007

Looking Back at 2006: My Favorite Albums

While I'm in the musical mood, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the albums I rated highly last year at this time and see how they've held up over a year of listening. I fully expect to be red-faced on some of these, so here goes (I've only commented on those that I would beg to differ with myself):

  • Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood - I probably wouldn't rate this album as highly today. It is still a great album, but I found myself listening to it less and less.
  • TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain - This probably should have been number one, but since I still listen to Boys and Girls in America so much, we can call it a tie.
  • Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere - Boy, did I fall for the hype here. I don't think I've listened to this album at all in the last four or five months.
  • Snowden: Anti-Anti -I would rate this one much higher today, moving it out of the honorable mention category and into the top 10 "Like Bullets".
All in all, I don't think I did too badly.
NP: "Skyscapers" - Close Lobsters

2007 Music Review: My Favorite Album

1. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

After all the thought and the effort put into this year's list, there really could be only one album that would occupy this slot. Sure, various drafts had other albums here, but at the end of the day (or year), I simply listened to this album more than any other album, and that has to count for something, right? This was one of the most anticipated albums of the year, and to deliver so well on it's promise so well (even more so than The National and Arcade Fire) made it a dead lock. On Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon departs from it's usually sparse arrangements to incredible effect on "I've Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and "The Underdog", while retaining it to great effect on songs like "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case". I've been a fan of Britt Daniel and company for quite a while, but this may be their finest effort yet.

NP: "Heaven's Gate" - Ian McCulloch

2007 Music Review: Favorite Albums 2 - 4

4. Okkervil River - The Stage Names

Various versions of this list had this album at the number one spot. I didn't expect this level of excellence from this album, even as much as I liked Black Sheep Boy. Okkervil River made "the leap" this year, stepping it up to another level. Not a note goes astray on this album. While they lost some of the twang (and Lord knows I like me some twang), the album is better for it. "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" would also have to be in contention for song of the year if I were detail oriented enough to make such a list.

3. Panda Bear - Person Pitch

To quote my friend Craig, Panda Bear changed the way I listen to music. Person Pitch was so different, so genre deconstructing that I'm still not even sure how to categorize it. Jumping off from Brian Wilson, this album went places that I didn't even know existed. It's no surprise that it's ranked so highly on so many year-end lists.

2. Battles - Mirrored

The perfect commute album. Again, an album that a couple of years ago I would have been surprised if I'd rated it so highly. "Atlas" would have to be considered in any song of the year lists. The craftsmanship of the artists here is masterful, but that doesn't take away from the actual songs. They are at once catchy and challenging, leading to a very rewarding experience during listening.

NP: "Animal or Vegetable" - Stereolab

Friday, December 28, 2007

2007 Music Review: Favorite Albums 5 - 8

8. Deerhunter - Cryptograms / Fluorescent Gray

You just knew an Atlanta band would have to show up somewhere in the list--and this year I didn't have to stretch even. This year saw Deerhunter release a fantastic full length CD, Cryptograms, as well as a very underrated EP, Fluorescent Gray, which essentially represents a third side to Cryptograms, evoking the traditional LP structure. It's been an eventful year for Deerhunter, including garnering critical acclaim and suffering an armed robbery (in my own neighborhood no less). Never straightforward, the tracks on Cryptograms veer from ambient interludes that served to separate the most disparate tracks to seamlessly move into songs that are both addictive while challenging to the listener. Not to mention, this album may have one of the best covers of the year.

7. Radiohead - In Rainbows

I have a confession to make. I've never really understood the whole fascination with Radiohead. Don't get me wrong, The Bends and OK Computer are both fantastic albums that I totally appreciate, but that I've never been able to love. So this may be a surprise entrant, even though many critics probably have this as their top album of the year. So with this entry, that old impasse may finally have been broached with In Rainbows. I love this album. I can't get its songs out of my head after listening, something I've never been able to say before. Equally interesting is how Radiohead saw fit to deliver this album, as a pay-as-much-as-you-want download from their website. I have no idea how much money they actually received per copy on average, but we know that money goes directly to the artists, not some set of suits, and anything that turns the RIAA on its ear gets kudos from me.

6. Explosions in the Sky - All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone

When talking about Explosions in the Sky, I must first give a considerable tip of the cap to Dilettante in Distress, who first alerted me to this incredible Austin band. Listening to All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone is equally evocative of the wide, desolate landscapes of Texas (her words again) as it is of a mundane train commute to work. What the band lacks in lyrics is more than made up by inspired instrumentation and haunting sounds. More often than not at work, I find myself playing this album to metaphorically get outside and wander around.

5. The National - Boxer

The last we heard from The National, there were landing at the number 2 spot on my 2005 list with Alligator. So, what's changed since then? Very little in terms of quality. In fact, I've seen Boxer listed more often at the top spot across the music blogs than probably any other album. That's not to say Matt Berninger and company didn't evolve. Boxer is a much more introspective album than Alligator, and the sound suits them. They eschew the harder edged rockers that I found so distinctive on Alligator ("Mr. November, "Abel") for a much quieter sound that paints a vivid picture of the malaise of 21st century life (though much differently than Bloc Party's Weekend in the City or The Good the Bad and the Queen approach a similar subject).

Next up, albums 2, 3, and 4.

NP: "Joyless, Joyless" - Minus Story

Thursday, December 27, 2007

My Office

Is finally starting to take shape and become a center for productivity:

Keen eyes, however, may discern one of my chief productivity sucks as well (and I'm not talking about the TV or the Xbox that's hidden below it).

Doesn't everyone just have duct tape just lying around?

NP: "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death from Above" - CSS

2007 Music Review: Favorite Albums 9 - 13

Now that I've returned from my holiday travels, the list of my favorite albums can continue. In this installment, I'll countdown albums 13 through 9, with the top eight coming in future posts. (Hey, I still have four days yet!)

From this point on, any of these are worthy of that top spot on a given day--there is really that little separating them. It's been a great year for music as these selections will attest.

Now, on with the countdown!

13. The Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

The Arcade Fire's second album may have been one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year, mainly because of the quality of Funeral. Since its release, the critical mood has been all over the map--from disappointment to praise to backlash and back again. I may be a heretic here, but on the whole, I think Neon Bible actually works a bit better as a whole than Funeral. It never truly reaches the highs of their first effort, but there is not a bad song on Neon Bible, maybe the reaction is a bit of familiarity breeding a slight bit of contempt (not that it's that strong mind you). In a lot of years, this could easily have been my top pick (heck, ask me in a month and it may be yet).

12. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam

This album is just fun. Sometimes those of us who listen to a lot of music and think about it about it even more tend to overthink things and forget to just enjoy it for what it is. I'm not really sure what else draws me to Strawberry Jam, aside from this sense of fun. I could point out the obvious things like how well the music, even with the unconventional arrangements, is made and how everything fits just so, even though you might think it would totally miss, but wouldn't that be overthinking it all over again. I certainly wasn't surprised to see this on a lot of year end lists (including my own).

11. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver

A dance part for adults. I can't recall where I read that (and I don't intend to steal anyone's thunder), but I think that perfectly encapsulates LCD Soundsystem. Adding incredibly infectious sounds and energy to highly articulate and clever lyrics, The Sound of Silver is a recipe for success. Just listening to "North American Scum" or "New York, I Love You, but You're Brining Me Down," is an exercise in itself in leaving preconceptions at the door (since I don't usually like anything that has a whiff of dance music about it).

10. Menomena - Friend and Foe

This year's list is quickly becoming an exercise in seeing how my musical tastes are expanding. Of course, I can't take too much credit for that. Instead, I'll credit the amount of good music that is recommended to me (by reading blogs, by friends, what have you). I doubt anyone who knows me well would have expected to find Menomena on this list, since I usually go for the tighter melodies and more straightforward sounds. Friend and Foe, however, is a great ride from start to finish, mixing moods and expectations more often than James Bond's bartender mixed martinis.

9. Beirut - The Flying Club Cup/Lon Gisland

"A Sunday Smile," the third track on The Flying Club Cup, along would merit this album's inclusion on this list. Even beyond that, this album is one that I could see myself living with for years to come. Add an excellent January EP (Lon Gisland) to Beirut's output this year, and it becomes certainty. I love the inclusions of the Balkan rhythms in Beirut's sounds. The inclusion of these sounds definitely does not make the music seem provincial, or worse, like world music. Instead, they meld seamlessly into an overall aesthetic that has a lot in common with many Elephant 6 acts. At times, the music on The Flying Club Cup eerily reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel, without ever sounding like it or evoking it directly. It's just a feeling I get.

More of my favorites to come in the coming days. And I promise that this list will be finished by New Year's Eve.

NP: "Line of Best Fit" - Death Cab for Cutie

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

2007 Music Review: Favorite Albums 14 - 25

Now on to my favorites. I'll be counting down from 25 to my favorite album of the year over a series of posts in the coming days. Some of these will merit more description than others (meaning that I have reasons for inclusion over and above listening to something a helluva lot).

25. Bloc Party - A Weekend in the City

I know that I'll probably get some flack for this one, since Bloc Party is no longer the critics' darling, but you know what, this is a damn fine album. True. It didn't hit me in the gut quite as immediately as Silent Alarm. However, if they made that same album again, I'd been very disappointed (see Interpol). This album shows growth, and even though I wasn't intially all that excited about this effort, time has been very kind. "Waiting for the 7:18" especially captures something that resonates with me.

24. Grizzly Bear - Friend

I don't know anyone that knows me that would think I would enjoy music best, or most famously categorized as psychedelic folk, but what do you know, I really enjoyed this album (or EP depending on the review). While this wasn't on my sought after music as often as other albums on this list, it's appearance on shuffle on the train ride to work was never unwelcome (which is high praise indeed).

23. The Good The Bad and the Queen - The Good The Bad and the Queen

Paul Simonen meets Damon Albarn? Clash meets Blur meets Gorillaz? 'Nuff said. Really, those opening questions pretty much characterize it. Does this sound the least bit like The Clash. No. But to see Paul Simonen return to making music is something to get a bit excited about. I actually found this album a bit more accessible than the previous Gorillaz efforts, even though I enjoyed them a lot as well. And hey, they play live!

22. José González - In Our Nature

hile nothing on this album stands out quite as much as his cover of "Love Will Tear Us Apart", nothing could be said to be so derivative. For better or better, there's no coat-tails here. I don't know that I could sing a single verse off this album, but then again, it's not that kind of album. I often find myself looking for this one when I'm working.

21. Iron and Wine - The Shepard’s Dog

Wow, so much of what I said about Jose Gonzalez could be said about this. Only I'd have to add drums for once. You'd think their presence would seem odd on an Iron & Wine album. You'd be wrong. That collaboration with Calexico is starting to bear unexpected but delicious fruit.

20. The Besnard Lakes - The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse

It's been a very good year for the Besnard Lakes. They go from being nobodies to being on a lot of top 20 lists for the year. So does this make me a bandwagon jumper. Perhaps. I did enjoy this album quite a bit though, and listened to it a bit more than anything that goes before except maybe the Bloc Party (which dropped early in the year).

19. Blitzen Trapper - Wild Mountain Nation

I'll admit it, this is a late addition to the list. My first listens to Blitzen Trapper (through some dubiously obtained samples) didn't really get me too excited. It was only upon hearing them featured on All Songs Considered recently that I actually sought out this album. I wish I had before then. While it's not my usual taste, it is incredibly "interesting" (in a good way). I don't get all halfway comparisons to the Grateful Dead either (that would be a non-starter in my mind).

18. Feist - The Reminder

Two Feist albums. Two appearances on my end of year lists. And the first one was even before I found out I worked (albeit remotely) with her brother (Hi Ben, if you ever read this!). And you know what? This ranking is even more appropriate than they last. Of course, a little help from Apple never hurt anyone (and in this case, it was deserved), so hopefully she'll make more of these lists this year.

17. The Twilight Sad - Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters

This album caught me totally by surprise. It was the first time I had even heard of The Twilight Sad to be honest (hey, something always slips through the cracks). I especially like how some of their songs seamlessly navigate the space between quiet and loud, and they build in such a way that when they do reach their full sound, it takes you by surprise.

16. Handsome Furs - Plague Park

A side project of one of the dynamic duo from Wolf Parade, Dan Boeckner, Handsome Furs has often been compared to Bruce Springsteen, and I think that comparison is somewhat relevant. The music here is much more direct than that of Wolf Parade, and I like its earnest straightforwardness quite a bit.

15. Great Lake Swimmers - Ongiara

I've know about Great Lake Swimmers for some time. I think I discovered them last year some time (a song here, a song there), and while I enjoyed their music, I would never have thought that they would make a end of year list I was preparing. Even though the band is from Canada, their music has an essentially American feel to it, almost like some alt-country acts, though I would never put them in that category directly. Their MySpace page describes their sound as ambient folk, but I don't think that label applies either--I find my toe tapping or head bobbing to their music way too much for it to be ambient in any way.

14. Sunset Rubdown - Random Spirit Lover

It's been a good year for the members of Wolf Parade (see Handsome Furs above). The other half of that dynamic duo is Spencer Krug, who forms the core of Sunset Rubdown. Unlike Handsome Furs, however, Sunset Rubdown captures the pure energy that inhabits most Wolf Parade tunes, but with a verve and urgency that sometimes gets lost in the pure driving force of Wolf Parade. It doesn't hurt that two of the best live shows I've seen over the last 14 months were Sunset Rubdown shows.

NP: "Skin Deep" - The Stranglers

Monday, December 17, 2007

2007 Music Review: Honorable Mentions and Disappointments

I know it's been rather quiet around here lately (looking around sheepishly), but it's that time of the year--the time for me to foist my barely-coherent opinions upon the Interweb at large and decree my favorite albums of the year.

Even though I haven't been around all that much, I would like to document these, if for no other reason than to expose myself to ridicule right now by the public at large and at some yet-to-be determined point in the future when I will probably view some of these with shock and incredulity.

First, there were a number of recordings that I'd like to mention in one way or the other, even though they didn't merit inclusion in the main list. Here are the honorable mentions:

Shearwater - Palo Santo: Extended Edition
I loved this album, but since it's a reissue of a 2006 recording, I couldn't bring myself to put it on the list proper (given different criteria, it would have made it with a bullet). However, it is a fantastic album, and the bonus materials and re-mastering really take the album to the next level.

The Afghan Whigs - Unbreakable: A Retrospective 1990-2006
One new song. A whole bunch more that should remind you just how much of an awesome, kick-ass band The Afghan Whigs were. Everyone needs a reminder now and then--not that these guys were ever very far from my radar (as evidenced by my listening stats).

Vampire Weekend - Various
No full album, but great promise indeed! Here's a very promising newcomer. I wouldn't put a collection of heard songs (maybe an EP worth) on my list, and I've only just started listening to them, but boy-howdy, am I listening to their songs a helluva lot lately. Put them down as one to watch in 2008.

Next up, the disappointments:

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
I love Wilco, I do. I'm usually among their most tenacious defenders and I proselytize for them among non fans repeated, taking peach-heads to the Fox to enjoy a live show. But you know what, they lost me on this one. While Pitchfork's description of the album as "Dad Rock" seems a bit harsh to me, I certainly think the album is too introspective, too lacking in that Wilco-ish quality to be anything other than a disappointment to me. There are good songs here though ("Impossible Germany"), but the whole does not cohere.

Interpol - Our Love to Admire
Where do I start with Interpol? First album, top 1o of the year (loved it). Second album? mildly disappointed. I thought Editors debut sounded like what Antics should have. And now a third. And no growth. No change. The only positive is the improvement of the cover art. Are there good songs here. Perhaps. But my disappointment is grounded in what Interpol could have, no should have, been. Instead they've stagnated. Every band deserves an off note. But two in a row show that they've not insinuating themselves into my ear for much longer.

I'll be counting down my favorites in succeeding posts in the coming days.

NP: "Rock and Roll" - Spiritualized