It’s been an excellent year for new music. My top ten:
1. Radiohead – In Rainbows
For a while, Radiohead got way more press for their innovative distribution scheme than the music itself. But by now, everyone’s had a few good listens of the record. The evolution they started with Kid A has come full circle, through the drab arrangements of Hail to the Thief and Yorke’s The Eraser. A word I’ve heard thrown around is “accessible”. The weirdness is still there, the strange time signatures, Thom’s voice ethereal as ever. But instead of cold nihilism of HTTT, there’s warmth here. The tempos pick up (and they’re produced by real drums, not a machine), and while it’s still heavily digitized, there’s some life behind the performance. Bodysnatchers harks back to the old days, a good old rocker with actual grungy guitar distortion. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is a great hybrid between the new and old Radiohead. The vocals are clean, it’s played with real instruments, possesses some vibrancy. But it’s still shaped in the motifs of new Radiohead: cold expanses, the empty loneliness of technology, alien worlds, dehumanization (although it could be argued these were always their motifs). None of ten songs are filler by any means, but Reckoner and Jigsaw Falling into Place are other standouts. In Rainbows closes out in a sad poem, a brilliant comparison between two hellish immortalities – dragged down by Mephistopheles and preserved on damning Videotape.
2. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Indy-rock darlings, hailed by the press, headlining huge tours, taking the stage with Springsteen, is it any surprise this record is on the list? The praise is deserved. If Funeral was a record about Canada (excluding Haiti) – cold winters and small towns – Neon Bible is America in all its sensational glory. These are ballads and requiems for the television preacher, the pop-star manager, the soldier. Two of the best – Keep the Car Running and No Cars Go, ride on our love affair with automobiles. Melodies and lyrics are on par with their debut, but the themes are bigger, perhaps more political. Deservedly, it’s up for a Grammy.
3. Panda Bear – Person Pitch
Panda Bear is Noah Lennox, one of the guys from Animal Collective, so the sound is going to fall under the same genre. Person Pitch is highlighted by Bros, a 12 minute opus that touches everything brilliant about Panda Bear. The song is a maelstrom of samples, pulverized in a blender to a warm concoction. After a duo of hooting owls, the underlying foundation kicks up, a lulling melody of holiday bells, then the vocals – Beach Boys in purgatory. The whole reverbed thing sounds piped in from another world. The song undergoes a number of evolutions, set off with some unique samples (crying babies, moaning men, softly orgasming woman), but each is smooth enough the entire twelve minutes is like a holistic glorious ball of noise. Certainly one of the most original records I’ve heard this year.
4. The National – Boxer
I enjoyed Alligator a ton, and initially I thought Boxer was a bit boring in comparison. The songs were even more depressed and never rocked out in the fashion of “Abel” and “Lit Up”. But after a number of listens, it grew on me. Matt Berninger’s baritone is fully employed and works well in the politically appropriate Fake Empire, which starts off the album, utilizing a nice faux trumpet fanfare to offset the imperialistic laments. The songwriting is perhaps better here than previous efforts, lots of clever turns of phrase both sad and bittersweet. The whole record is solid, and although without any rock-out songs, it works. Berninger is too depressed and tired in these tunes to put on his rockstar hat. The great thing is he pulls it off. This is a perfect autumn album when the leaves are brown and falling, the wind picking up and growing cold.
5. Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam
AC has been pushing the limits of music for some time now, and Strawberry Jam is their latest foray into audio weirdness. It certainly delivers, and a few of the songs are career-best knockouts. Peacebone boots up with menacing digital synth, coalescing into a bouncing danceable bass and Avey Tare’s absurd lyrics. Perhaps it was his work on Person Pitch, but Panda Bear takes a backseat on vocals on this record (as opposed to Feels, where it was split evenly). Avey is in full form with his well-timed screams, and nowhere are they better integrated than in Reverend Green, the record’s standout. There’s an anguish to his singing here, matching the warped minor-key accordion. The song transitions perfectly into feel-good Fireworks, with a quicker tempo, strummed guitar, Panda Bear’s hoots morphing into a sampled avian. The other songs aren’t as amazing, but the record is a great addition to their collection – it embraces the spirit of AC, a group of maddened beasts, constructing “textures” of sound and trance-inducing chants.
6. Sunset Rubdown – Random Spirit Lover
Thanks to A for the recommendation. Sunset Rubdown is a spinoff band for Spencer Krug, lead singer of Wolf Parade. The band’s sound is similar – complex arrangements of piano, guitars and synthesized noise. Krug’s vocals are even more intense, his voice constantly on the edge of tears or pain or exaltation. The songs often remind me of some sort of circus act, the same pompous marching band melodies mixed through synthesizers, topped with Spencer Krug’s pompous leadership. Sometimes the amount of sound is almost overwhelming, verging on cacophony. But before it gets out of control, they pull off some dramatic tonal shift and go in a different direction. The record quickly builds from the start, culminating in Up on Your Leapord, an Irish bagpipe stomp and rousing sing along. From there it churns deeper, perhaps even sinister with Colt Grows Horns and Stallion, then rising back into spectacular finishers – Taming of the Hands and Trumpet, Trumpet, Toot! Toot!
7. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
There’s been a bunch of hype around James Murphy’s project. It’s not often a dance offshoot gets shot to the top of the “Indy” favorite lists. But the last few years have been a perfect storm for electronica (witness The Knife crowned king of Pitchfork’s 2006 list), a resurgence and rediscovering of old sounds that were thought buried. In a way, LCD Soundsystem is a reaction against the over-produced trancey sounds that have become staples of European electronica, the whooshing blends and rushes, the lack of harsh synth tones. Murphy embraces them in Sound of Silver. Then there’s Murphy’s voice. At times, it’s a cold moan (Get Innocuous, Sound of Silver), quirky disco-punk (Time to Get Away, North American Scum), or an honest lucid anthem (All My Friends). Which, by the way, is probably the best song of 2007. They’re up for a Grammy.
8. Band of Horses – Cease to Begin
Like National’s Boxer, I was initially disappointed with Cease to Begin. I thought it literally lived up the title and never really got started. Even the opener – Is There a Ghost, never answers the posed question, building up the amplification then puttering out. The rest of the record is a sullen lullaby. Band of Horses has always had southern rock sensibilities. Ben Bridewell’s heartfelt vocals match that aesthetic, lyrics about dogs and small towns, weddings and rivers. Bridewell made a conscious decision to move away from the overwrought barn-burners like Funeral, despite the corporate paychecks it’s cut him. Instead he’s slowed it down, explored twangy alt-country (Window Blues, Marry Song) and mellowed into tender farewells (Detlef schrempf). And once you get used to it, there’s still some energetic guitar rock under it all (Ode to LRC, Islands on the Coast).
9. Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog
Just as “Indy” has embraced electronic music in recent years, folk and bluegrass have also entered the fold. Iron & Wine, the stage name of songwriter Sam Beam, is one of the new standouts. Shepherd’s Dog brings a lot to the table, mixing staple folk ballad structures with well-written lyrics and original instrumentation. The tempo’s been upped from some of his earlier stuff, injected with bluesy sounds reminiscent of Led Zeppelin (White Tooth Man, House By the Sea). In some songs Beam’s breathy voice even goes under the mixer (Carousel), distorted like early Black Sabbath. Even the standard bluegrass templates are well done (Resurrection Fern). I also like how the guy has embraced the digital format, online distribution, even some synthesized tweaks and tones (Arms of a Thief), all while staying true to his sound.
10. Menomena – Friend and Foe
Menomena are a talented band made more so by clever uses of technology. On the surface, they come off as your standard rock ensemble, supplemented with saxophone and piano. Then you realize its only three guys and wonder how they pull it off. Their trick is a cool gadget (Deeler) that records and plays back samples in real time. A few other bands are experimenting with this (Battles). There’s a giddy energy to their songs, employing whistles, wide acoustical shifts, dramatic pauses and tempo changes. All this coupled with the vocals (the three distribute this responsibility as well), a clear high tenor that perfectly offsets the dirty saxophone blurts. I’ve heard these guys put on a great live show.
Runners Up: Just not enough room to give everyone props.
Battles – Mirrored
Blonde Redhead – 23
Explosions in the Sky – All the Sudden I Miss Everyone
Let Downs: I blame the jump to major labels. You can hear the shiny plastic gloss on top of what was once awesome indy rock.
Interpol – Our Love to Admire
Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight