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Best Albums of 2007 - Total, final, whatever.

I’ve deleted all previous entries to this long-running attempt to complete my Best of ’07 list; here’s the whole shebang.

Honorable Mentions (all very strong, but either too uneven, too lacking in peaks, or not listened to enough to warrant top ten consideration): The Acorn, Glory Hope Mountain; Aesop Rock, None Shall Pass; Beirut, The Flying Club Cup; Burial, Untrue; Deerhunter, Cryptograms; El-P, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead; The Field, From Here We Go Sublime; Frog Eyes, Tears of the Valedictorian; Future of the Left, Curses; Great Lake Swimmers, Ongiara; Les Savy Fav, Let's Stay Friends; Marissa Nadler, Songs III: Bird on the Water; M.I.A., Kala; Okkervil River, The Stage Names; Pantha Du Prince, This Bliss; Radiohead, In Rainbows; John Vanderslice, Emerald City; Yeasayer, All Hour Cymbals

Albums that threaten this list's future authenticity:

Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam - Possibly the band’s best album yet. Not included due to Panda Bear, and infrequent desire to listen to the album, but I expect the group to go even further in conceiving an alternate future for pop music that will probably never come to light. AC are, to me, becoming a sort of litmus test for my appreciation of other music critics: if you’re not on board, you probably just can’t handle the new.

Battles, Mirrored - Not included because... well basically because I’m more sympathetic to Menomena, I guess. Initially, it felt like Battles - in going a little bit pop, and adding vocals - may have sacrificed some of their spartan intensity. I don’t really feel that way anymore.

Ned Collette, Future Suture - The album I most regret excluding. Collette is a singer/songwriter from Australia (this album is not yet available in the US), and Future Suture is his second album (and second Great Album). He sing/speaks his way through noirish stories of love’s charred aftermath, deft at realistically bridging the gap between what was and what no longer is. Future Suture broadens that scope, though, with Collette applying his punchy imagery to political folk songs. Collette’s debut established him as an especially nimble guitar player, and the active heartache of his lyrics was enough to make this stony listener moisten; here, he stunningly does the same thing with anti-Bush sentiment, a trope I can rarely stand in a song. He’s seamlessly incorporated his guitar work into some lavish psychedelic rock arrangements, an artistic development that would normally take a guy a few albums. It’s a major work, and if Collette doesn’t find his brush with fame anytime soon, I expect he’ll be looked back upon as the Nick Drake of the ‘00s.

Dirty Projectors, Rise Above - Another one I left off due to a slightly excessive level of difficulty, Rise Above is nonetheless the DPs richly deserved mainstream-indie breakthrough, both a meta-delight (this is a reimagining of Black Flag’s classic Damaged) and a lush, imaginative rock album all its own. Hunt down the closing title track, one of my favorite songs of 2007.

Nina Nastasia & Jim White, You Follow Me - My AOTY for a brief time in the fall, this is a gorgeous collaboration: Nastasia’s wonderfully plaintive voice and lyrics are an unlikely and sometimes exhilirating companion to Jim White’s gentle, improvised drums.

No Age, Weirdo Rippers - A more explicitly punk take on the alternating song-and-haze trick that Deerhunter’s come to fame with, this collection of No Age’s past singles promises great things for their Sub Pop debut, out in May.

St. Vincent, Marry Me - Though I favor Deer Tick and No Age, Marry Me really feels like the debut of the year. Out of nowhere, Feist has some very adventurous, sexy, intrepid competition to deal with.

Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga - I’ve been calling Spoon my favorite band since 2001, and I probably still will, but something about Ga - the band’s mainstream breakthrough, and the album where people stopped thinking of them as cold, uncompromising snobs - left me wanting, well, less. Their new friends - spanish guitars and horns - settle in pretty nicely, and “The Ghost of You Lingers” was a wonderful fuck-you of a first single, but the album could have used more of it. A few too many songs feel like the one weak track that seems to be on every other Spoon album.

Sunset Rubdown, Random Spirit Lover - Excluded for a minor reason. Musically, it’s an unexpectedly dazzling follow-up to last year’s Shut Up I Am Dreaming, but I’ve got a lingering fear that Spencer Krug’s lyrical tropes (references to horses, snakes, mythic beasts, etc.) are verging on self-parody. To be fair, though, I only consider this during the one or two tracks on the album that don’t knock me out, and had I seen the band in concert last week rather than three months ago, I would have still been so stunned by a jockish crowd’s embracing them in Boston that this would have ranked very highly.

10) Supersilent, 8

Compounding the torture of narrowing this list (seriously, all of those HMs are really good, and most of them are awesome), I got flustered by it’s whiteboy hipsterity and forced myself to include at least one album outside of standard blogger fare. With that, I give you 8, a beautiful and terrifying album that opens the mind to a wealth of Lynchian (David) imagery. What sort of imagery? Well, throughout the course of this hour-plus free jazz/noise/art-rock/post-rock opus, I generally see a miniature leprechaun in a stovepipe cap (akin to the killer in the movie, Leprechaun) tip-toeing around my prostrate body, poking at and bouncing on my stomach until he bellyflops onto it, rips it open and gnarls at my innards. Except this is all happening on a self-consuming emotional level, so instead of whimsically considering said evil leprechaun, I am flanked by the ghosts of every horrifying thought and possibility I’ve ever faced as alien woodpeckers circle the periphery. There is no redemption in this experience, and rest assured I likely won’t return often, but its immaculate conception requires no small amount of talent.

9) The National, Boxer

This band… It’s tempting to give Boxer the AOTY and be done with the rest. (I’m ranking it this low in an attempt at objectivity I’ll regret in a few weeks, though it will never replace my #1.) I listened to this album more than any other in 2007, and spent days in the office exclusively listening to the National’s last three albums on a repeating eight-hour shuffle. I scrutinized Boxer until I sucked the life out of it. I know every false note and trite lyric. I hate the hollow drumming on “Brainy.” I know the chorus of “Apartment Story” is kind of flat. I don’t even think “we’re half awake in a fake empire” is a good lyric anymore. But it doesn’t matter. Boxer isn’t for me or you; it’s for us, together or apart.

Boxer’s strengths and weaknesses reinforce one another until its whole totally outweighs the sum of its parts. It is a clinic on the power of chemistry. Five instrumentalists playing in such delicate harmony that even a muted bridge feels like a cascade, led to church by vocalist Matt Berninger’s velveteen musings about heartache. You relate to the bad poetry and you’re endeared with the relatable narratives of drunken stupors and numbed perspective, and Boxer aligns so closely with your hopes and fears, your successes and failures, that you can’t approach it with anything other than reverence. Congratulations, boys: you captured the zeitgeist. It’s about time someone did.

(And as a postscript, if you think this entry is trite corny bullshit, go see the band in concert. The National turn grown fratboys into puppies and apathetic hipsters into stoic worshippers. Also note that this does not make for an ideal concertgoing environment, but it’s a hell of a phenomenon.)

8) Parts & Labor, Mapmaker 

It wound up being a total underdog’s race in the rock AOTY category, short on veterans and big on tactical shifts. Future of the Left managed to be, literally and figuratively, the new McLusky. Les Savy Fav kicked the Hold Steady’s ass with Let’s Stay Friends. More broadly, Battles, Sunset Rubdown, Blitzen Trapper and Frog Eyes all put a unique and excellent spin on what the future of the genre might be, tweaking formulas in unexpected ways and coming out the better for it.

It’s Mapmaker that really delivers the thrills, though. Remarkable for a band that has exactly one gimmick: a keyboard that’s been best described as a “dentist drill,” a sound that’s mechanical but pitched to a point where it whirs with a propulsive force. Add this to a high school band’s triumphalist punk rock ethos, catapaulted by militant drumming and seasoned guitar work – anthems so confident, in patience and youthful panache, that it’s shocking to realize this is a sophomore album – and you’ve got the rare rock opus equally vital for your aged Stoner pops and your rebellious little brother.

7) Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha

Spiritual cousin to Boxer in its dogmatic aim for a subdued atmosphere, Bird’s latest may be his best, if only because the mood suits him so well. Even when he lets loose – that incomparable whistle ushering in the howling “Black Matter” – Bird’s performance is, for the first time, tempered just a bit by the anti-corporate anger and paranoia that’s always informed his lyrics. He doesn’t wink at his metaphors (no “there will be snacks” rug-pulling here) or engage in any of the cheeseball whimsy that cemented him as a crossover success. Instead, Armchair Apocrypha represents the fusion of composer and linguist that the artist’s best songs have always hinted at. Bird’s words ensure the album’s still fun to engage with, his violin guarantees drama and magnificence, but the two have never worked together so harmoniously, or sorrowfully.

6) Field Music, Tones of Town

I’ve previously described Field Music as “The History Boys’s forgotten indie-pop band.” Their craft is mannered and technically immaculate, but can seem a little cold and, well, British. After about 25 spins (we’re probably in the seventies now, this is my most-played AOTY), I realized what kept me coming back: the band’s start-stop rhythms and allergy towards time signatures aren’t just interesting, they’re completely elastic. Tones of Town is a spring-loaded pop album, mixed and played to within an inch of its life. What at first come off as simple hooks, delicately sung, pass muster even compared to the more obvious feats of this list’s #3. But Field Music doesn’t seem interested in spelling that out for you. Must be some old British modesty. Regardless, an excellent and timeless second album that’s made this trio, IMO, the most overlooked band in Indie.

5) Feist, The Reminder

For the most adept year-end entry re: Feist, check this out. (Jessica Faulds, you are my dream girl-music-critic.) The sentiment is dead on. For that month or two where Feist was haloed as indie rock’s brightest crossover hope since the Shins (and probably even brighter than that), The Reminder was heaven. The part where “So Sorry” completely one-ups the commandingly intimate sorrow of everything on Let it Die, then seguing to the cute grungy guitar and sparkle-magic xylophone of “I Feel It All,” then seguing ad nauseum into eleven other songs that could single-handedly replace the whole of adult contemporary radio… that was a unifying, optimistic moment. Then those of you with TVs started complaining about the Apple commercial, started pretending “1234” was this year’s “Young Folks,” started doubting Leslie’s integrity and even her beauty. Well I would say fuck you guys, but instead thanks for making me realize that it’s “Limit to Your Love” that’s actually the ultimate banger here. Feist’s mainstream victory also provided the most hilarious of many ridiculous incidents re: this year’s Grammy nominations: one of the Canada scene’s more seasoned performers is apparently one of the 2007’s Best New Artists.  In the sense that The Reminder’s strong enough to make us forget that Feist was ever part of Peaches, Broken Social Scene, or recorded two previous solo albums, maybe the nod makes sense.

(Also, apologies for this entry overlooking the fact that the emotional/lyrical content of this album is high-caliber, and completely undeserving of the defensiveness and counterhype portrayed above. Look what the world’s come to.)

 

4) Deer Tick, War Elephant

 


 

My ideology is not that of a Pitchfork-hater, and I don’t believe the site is a malignant force, but once in a while I wonder. In those halcyon days before Pitchfork was granted (self-imposed or not, who knows…) the status of indie music’s lighthouse for the mainstream, the site used to make a maddening and fascinating habit of trashing albums by well-established indie acts who (sub-culturally) popular sentiment deemed beyond reproach. Those days appear to have passed, and now the site’s taken up the unfortunate habit of reserving their hastier dismissals toward new acts a nudge away from widespread critical success. Their review of Deer Tick’s revelatory debut – which reads like Rolling Stone’s takes on de facto AOTY candidates for most web zines – acknowledges John McCauley’s caustic wit, yet somehow remains oblivious to its depth, the music-crit equvalent of thinking No Country for Old Men is an amofal film.

 

And, while there may not be deeper meaning lurking beneath the whole of War Elephant, you won’t find many false notes and there’s an awful lot to chew on. McCauley’s voice, rotten with whiskey and tobacco, is a marvel, funny and vulnerable, wise and playful. His delivery gives a visceral kick to lines like “murdered my throat screaming bloody all night," and he subverts tropes and aphorisms like an old country giant. Intellectually, it’s fun to consider the authenticity and ramifications of a 21-year old guy singing the thoughts of what ought to be a middle-aged minstrel who’s been chomped up and spit out; McCauley has a ball with the notion too, pulling the rug out from under the listener with a last-minute burst of cabaret. Come to think of it, I should dispose of the No Country for Old Men comparison; McCauley’s the Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood) of 2007.

 

The writing gets hasty here, but we’re jumping from late-December to January 17 here, and I’m finishing up for posterity’s sake.

 

3) Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

 


 

(Note: this blurb is an excerpt of a review I wrote of the album upon its release. This was one of my first published articles, hence its sucking.) Hissing Fauna feels like the actualization of everything Kevin Barnes has always wanted his band to be. All it took was a bout with depression and alcoholism.

 

This album is a beast. Pervasive, guttural drum-machine rhythms and canned synth lines act as a gloss over a maelstrom of digital trickery and ferocious washes of guitar. The chaotic background is an uncanny fit for Barnes’s early mid-life crisis: he’s questioning the morality of drinking and partying as a new husband and dad, and the surroundings of this punch-drunk party engulf him. Twelve-minute centerpiece “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” finds Barnes begging for forgiveness with desperate excess that barely can barely contain itself, until you latch onto the nuance and progression of his pleas as the vultures circle around him and he fights them away. Other tracks tone down the drama into pieces more poppy and digestible, but the message is entirely clear: young-adulthood may be trite and superficial, but it’s a fight to grow out of. In Barnes’s manic eyes, that moral’s never been as coherent, innovative, or thrilling.

 

2) Menomena, Friend and Foe

 


 

I can’t imagine a band leaving me more eager to relive my teenage angst than Menomena. Their songs are guitar and keyboard licks, saxophone honks and skronks, and drumlines chopped up and filtered through a computer program they created, called Deeler. Part of the genius of the tracks is that they’re not as flashy as that intense production would imply (the trickery was much more obvious on their debut, I Am the Fun Blame Monster). Deeler allows the band to rachet their hugely triumphant anthems and more intricate, somber material to tremendously suspenseful heights. Friend and Foe is quite literally moving; the start-stops and tidal waves of momentum pull your body around, and no 2007 album better rewards a good pair of headphones (I hesitated to rank the album this high during a two-month stretch where I was stuck with iPod earbuds; new Sennheisers were like a rebirth). Menomena’s fairly emo approach to lyrics (pissed-off and demanding catharsis, post-9/11 paranoid at times) feels totally justified by the accompanying arrangements; if I owned this album in high school, I never would have needed Elliott Smith. Also, congrats to the band on a well-deserved Grammy nomination for best album artwork.

 

1) Panda Bear, Person Pitch


(Note: From a review of the album I wrote in May, hence its being a little bit better than the Of Montreal thing.) Panda Bear’s new album is built from striking found sounds and samples: tribal drum beats, underwater sound effects, planes taking off, non-verbal vocal incantations, and various other oddities. It’s all very innovative and unusual, just the sort of one-of-a-kind pastiche you’d expect from a member of Brooklyn’s preeminent experimental pop group, Animal Collective. What makes Panda Bear’s second solo project, Person Pitch, such a revelation, though, are its lyrics. A choice hook: “Coolness is having courage to do what’s right/I try to remember always just to have a good time.”

When you think about what qualifies as honest or emotionally cathartic music these days, you hear about acts like Sufjan Stevens and the Arcade Fire. While certainly genuine, their honesty is only viable because it’s filtered through a post-ironic frame. Stevens employs thirty-word song titles and a high-school band’s worth of orchestral flourishes to make a simple, touching point; the Arcade Fire use a church organ and beat each other over the head with drumsticks to prove that they really, really mean it. Pop culture is so ingrained with sarcasm that it takes such massive productions to get anyone to pay attention. Panda Bear subverts this phenomenon by treating his voice — and by extension his message — just as playfully as he does his samples.

Opener “Comfy in Nautica” is a deceptively simple but undeniably triumphant beginning. What sounds like a train rolling by fades and breaks into a tribal loop of hand claps, foot stomps, and a one-note wordless incantation. As Panda Bear begins his aforementioned refrain, fighter jets take off across the mix and his hypnotic repetition of “good time” becomes subsumed by something akin to a spaceship. These incongruous sources — from the rails to a drum circle, to the clouds and outer space — attain the all-encompassing power of an epic journey, and yes, a good time to boot.

Thereafter, Panda Bear’s vocals are more fully absorbed into the mix. “Take Pills,” about the relief of coming off anti-depressants, is projected through a pool of soupy water, coming up for air with reassurances like “I feel stronger/We don’t need ‘em” and “Take it one day at a time.” “Bros” and “Good Girl/Carrots” both exceed twelve minutes, each comprised of a few wildly different movements bridged by sudden but seamless transitions. The latter carries a frantic house/dub beat through a jungle of incoherent bellowing into a piano-heavy declaration of autonomy, which then gives way to a third act made with a traditional reggae beat and xylophone, Panda Bear assuring us “It’s good to sometimes slow it down.” After a jarring first minute or two, the amorphous atmosphere becomes the track’s sustaining force; wherever you are, you’re about to move on.

The last track, the short and tender “Ponytails,” is a spare piano lullaby. Bookending the album with plaintive sentiments similar to how it began, Panda Bear chants, “When my soul stops growing I get so hungry/And I wish it never would stop growing.” A heavy dose of reverb makes the refrain float off into the cosmos. It’s a quiet summation of the imagination and contentment that makes Person Pitch a joyous and pure experience.

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