My top albums of 2007

The Albums

Everything leading up this were appetizers – to me, this is the main course. The album still stands as my preferred way of listening to music, sitting down for 30-70 minutes and going through a record track after track. I’m a dying breed, of course – hell, as it is, I’m quickly coming to realize just how rarely I listen to music without doing anything else. When I, of all people, am disappointed by my listening habits, the art form has reason to be concerned.

If the album is dying, then it’s going out with a bang. Unlike other years, where my top slot was a given by the time December rolled around, 2007 saw four genuine contenders for the number one position on this list. It was a year where some of my absolute favourite bands released great records, while some young upstarts stepped up to the plate and swung for the big leagues. Trying to balance between old hats and new discoveries wasn’t easy, and I’m sure I screwed up many times along the way, but for better or worse (and with many great records neglected by limiting the list to 15), this was the year in my stereo.

The Shepherd’s Dog

Love was a promise made of smokeThis has been coming for a while – after releasing Our Endless Numbered Days three years ago, Sam Beam has released two EPs where he’s been experimenting with pulling a Judas and going electric, or at the very least expanding his sound beyond its acoustic-driven core. And now, three years later, we finally have the culmination of that journey.

The approach is interesting – unlike his fellow breathy-voiced indie folkster, Sufjan Stevens, Beam has chosen to augment his songs with rhythm instead of melody, with percussion instead of orchestration. This gives The Shepherd’s Dog a loose, smoky feel, like it’s well-worn and lived in, like it’s existed for decades but remained magically undiscovered. It rolls from song to song, jangly acoustics and soft-tipped drums pushing the album along. In sticking true to this feel, the album loses a bit of diversity but gains a character all its own.

Watch: “The Devil Never Sleeps” live on Letterman

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

the dashboard melted but we still have the radioI’m conflicted about putting this one on the list because I’m concerned about the message it sends (as if, you know, anyone really cares). After all, We Were Dead… is hardly a step forward for Modest Mouse; in fact there’s a good case for it being their least essential record since their debut album.

But it kept finding its way back into my stereo all year long, and I think that’s because it’s the textbook case of a synthesis album: a fusion of the band’s work to date that marries their recently-found pop sensibilities (ably aided by the addition of Johnny Marr) with their past focus on sprawling epics. The record might be a little clean, but tracks like “Spitting Venom” and “Fly Trapped In A Jar” make no mistake about it: even if they top the Billboard charts, Modest Mouse will still be a weird, wonderful little band.

Watch: “Dashboard” music video

The Reminder

take it slow / take it easy on meAs good as holding onto a secret can be, sometimes they demand to be shared. Along these lines, 2007 was the year that the rest of the world found out about Leslie Feist. The best part was that there’s nothing about The Reminder that feels telegraphed for such a breakthrough.

Confession time: I thought Let it Die was an incredibly overrated record, lacking the dynamism and playfulness that I saw when I saw Feist in concert. Thankfully, The Reminder is a much more diverse, interesting and intimate record. You get your pop anthems (“1234”), your stunning acoustic ballads (“The Park”), your electro jams (the fuzz of “Sea Lion Woman”) and everything in between. It’s an album that finally lives up to Feist’s incredible talent.

Watch: “My Moon, My Man” music video

Cassadaga

the bible’s blind, the torah’s deaf, the koran is muteHere’s a question: why do we give some records a chance to grow on us while dismissing others with similar prospects? There’s no question that despite my initial reservations Cassadaga became one of my favourite records all year, but was this only because I was already a Bright Eyes fan? If this had been a new album by some new discovery, would I have allowed it the chance to impress me over time, or would I have simply moved onto something else?

Regardless, here we are. Cassadaga always impressed me to some degree, but with time even the album’s slower, less-immediate second half proved a grower, with tracks like “Coat Check Dream Song” and “Cleanse Song” showing Conor Oberst’s ability to fuse his thirst for sonic palettes with his folk foundation. It may not be a perfect record, but Cassadaga’s sheer ambition proves more valuable than it faults.

Watch: “Four Winds” music video

Spirit If

i know we’re gonna be the lucky onesWhen I learned that Kevin Drew was going to be releasing his first solo record under the moniker “Broken Social Scene presents Kevin Drew,” I was sure that the Arts & Crafts icon had succumbed to the evils of marketing, shamelessly leveraging his brand name to shill his new product. I still think it was a lame move, but looking over the album’s credits, it kind of makes sense. If Drew was trying to truly make a solo album, he failed miserably: this is as much a BSS record as anything else in the band’s discography.

In fact, while it lacks the high points of the band’s last self-titled album, Spirit If might be a more consistent, ultimately better record. Broken Social Scene sounded like a forced attempt to sound loose and raw; Spirit If actually is loose and raw. With a little help from his friends, Drew lays down some of the best songs of his career, from the J. Mascis-aided “Backed Out on the…” to the exhilarating “Lucky Ones,” to the wonderfully understated acoustic-driven tracks like “Safety Bricks” and “When It Begins.” What’s more, it’s the first BSS-related album that actually sounds like their stunning live show: rollicking, spontaneous, and a hell of a party.

Watch: “Backed Out on the…” music video

Person Pitch

im not trying to forget you oh woah ohOne of the more notorious pieces of music journalism this past year was Sasha Frere-Jones’ “A Paler Shade of White,” criticizing the racial re-sorting that took place in the 1990s that saw “black music’s” influence on trendsetting rock minimized. I thought it was a dubious piece, despite it made some salient points, because it was argued from the point of view that emphasizing Brian Wilson instead of James Brown is inherently bad.

Thankfully, Noah Lennox disagrees. I’ve never been a big Animal Collective fan, but on Person Pitch, Lennox’s third album under the Panda Bear moniker and Pitchfork’s album of the year, the Collective drummer lets his Wilson flag fly loud and proud. With a harmonious croon almost identical to the Beach Boy himself, Lennox crafts acidic walls of sound and fury that go on for minutes on end, changing shape and character with ever chord change and sounding completely different depending on how loud you have the stereo turned up. It’s not a record for short attention spands, but Person Pitch – which, fittingly, sits right beside Pet Sounds on my iPod- rewards dedicated listeners with some of the year’s best hooks.

Watch: “Bros” video

Magic

crushing the last long American nightAny magician will tell you that the secret of a great trick lies in the art of misdirection, of leading the audience to one conclusion before revealing an entirely different outcome. It’s a skill Springsteen knows well – his most popular album, Born in the USA, coated working class angst and turmoil in mid-80s keyboard sheen, tricking a generation into believing it was a salute to patriotism. While Magic hasn’t captured the public zeitgeist in quite the same way, in many ways it’s a reinterpretation of the same classic trick.

Coated in Brendan O’Brien’s glossy sheen and the E-Street Band’s largesse lies a surprisingly dark collection of songs – anthems of broken trust, failed nostalgia and war gone wrong. Unlike The Rising, a somber if optimistic record, Magic’s best moments feel like a celebration of defiance, tragic attempts to try and find rhythm and motion in the darkness. Like all good illusions, the façade entertains, but it’s the twists and contradictions at the core that linger long after the stage lights go down.

Watch: “Long Walk Home” video

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

ga ga ga ga gaMy co-worker Dawn is the most opinionated person I know when it comes to music. She knows no shades of grey – she either likes something, or she doesn’t. And while she really likes Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon’s excellent sixth album, she absolutely hates “The Ghost of You Lingers,” the record’s haunting piano-driven second song that throws a huge curveball into the tracklisting.

But that’s what’s so beautiful about Spoon – just when you think you’ve nailed their style, the pitch takes a twist and hits you completely unexpectedly. The result is the same – a strike is a strike, after all – but Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga has a few brilliant trick pitches. There’s the previously mentioned, “Ghost,” the horn-aided bubblegum pop of “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb,” and the funk-esque swagger of “Finer Feelings.” The remainder is some of the leanest, most efficient rock and roll you’ll find all year: slick, sophisticated and oh-so-stylish.

Watch: “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” live on SNL

Graduation

GraduationIt might just be the most appropriately-titled record of the year: a soundtrack celebrating a rapper’s transition from success to superstardom. Yet for all its boasts, Graduation…

“Aww hell naw! Heeeelll naw!!! Number seven!?!? What kind of bullshit is this? My record sold a MILLION COPIES in a WEEK and you put me at number seven?!?! I don’t even wanna see what kind of whiny shit you’ve put higher than my record. I made an entire album trying to please you indie motherfuckers. I sampled CAN for you people, I sampled DAFT PUNK, and this is how you repay me? Number SEVEN!?!?! This was my year, MY YEAR!! When I don’t get the respect I deserve, your blog loses credibility. That’s it, I’m outta here.” – Kanye West

Watch: “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” music video

Writer’s Block

Writer’s BlockAlright, let’s get this out of the way: yes, I know that Writer’s Block came out in Europe in 2006, which is why all the cool kids had it on their year-end lists twelve months ago. However, being the stickler that I am for physical records, I did not get around to listening to the album until its North American release this past February. Besides, it would be incredibly negligent of me to ignore such an awesome album just because it happened to fall into the “what year did it come out?” cracks. So here we are.

Yes, you’ve heard “Young Folks” – many, many times, especially if you watch any television at all. But have you heard the beautiful assault of catchiness that is “Objects of My Affection”? How about the cool, bass-driven pop of “The Chills”? Or most importantly of all, are you aware of the sprawling, brilliant “Up Against the Wall,” which makes the most of its seven glorious minutes? No? Then put down “Young Folks” and track down the rest of Writer’s Block – there’s a whole album of pop bliss waiting for you.

Watch: “Objects of My Affection” music video

Random Spirit Lover

Random Spirit LoverWant a glimpse into how good 2007 was for music? Last year, Shut Up I Am Dreaming, the debut record from Spencer Krug’s chamber-rock collective, topped my list of 2006’s best albums. Now, I think that its messy, bloated but brilliant follow-up, Random Spirit Lover, is probably a better, if less immediate, record. Yet, here it sits down at number five on my list. Yep, it was that kind of year.

What makes Random Spirit Lover both more challenging and more rewarding than its predecessor is that Krug has abandoned any pretense of leading a pop band and instead embraces the music of minstrels and castle courts – if, you know, minstrels and castle courts were completely messed up. Long, sprawling epics like “The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life” and “The Mending of the Gown” roll and rumble, transforming into anthems of trials and triads. With two stunning albums in two years – along with, you know, his 2,435 other projects – there’s a good case to be made to crown Krug king of Canadian indie music.

Watch: “Winged/Wicked Things” live at Culture Shock

Boxer

put a little something in our lemonade and take it with usThere are two ways that rock and roll can change lives. The first is in playing to the back of the crowd with each and every ounce of passion that can be mustered. The second is by inviting the back of the crowd to the stage, turning down the volume and demanding attention through understatement. Neither is better than the other, but the former (I’d argue) is easier; it’s the latter that requires a sense of skill, timing and most of all, dynamic.

On their breakthrough record Alligator, the National tried to balance between the two approaches, but on Boxer they pick a side. They craft a moody, melodic masterpiece that sets its mood with “Fake Empire” and maintains it for the following 43 minutes. Every song is like a miniature epic, completely intimate but somehow vast at the same time. While vocalist Matt Berninger gets most of the attention for his Leonard Cohen croon, the real star of the album is drummer Bryan Devendorf, whose drum riffs hold most of the album together while still holding true to the record’s theme of understatement. The band keeps the instrumentation just simple enough to allow room for the listener to place themselves within the narrative, providing them a personal soundtrack to their own apartment stories.

Watch: “Apartment Story” video

Sound of Silver

I don’t know, oh I don’t know, oh where to beginIf any artist deserves 2007’s “Most Improved Player” award, it’s easily James Murphy. I know I’ve said this every time I talk about the record, but it just cries out for repetition: LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut gave no indication that the band had an album like Sound of Silver in them. I figured that LCD would have a good long career as an enjoyable dance act, nothing more. That the outfit would be capable of crafting a moving, powerful, emotional record like this? I wouldn’t have bet money on it.

What Murphy gets is that regardless of its style – rock and roll, pop, electronic – popular music is a criminal art form. It’s about raiding the record collection for sounds, feelings, and sensibilities, and then deconstructing, smashing and reconstructing them into something that feels brand new. Sound of Silver is hardly the most original album of the year, but it’s certainly the most eclectic: it’s an album that dances, grooves, drives, calms and then speeds up again.

Hell, if it were only for “Someone Great” and “All My Friends” – easily the strongest one-two punch of the year – Sound of Silver would deserve this spot. But the entire album is a plethora of riches: the Talking Heads-aping “Get Innocuous!,” the blistering satire of “North American Scum,” the beautiful bleeps and bloops that close out the title track. But it’s the album’s biggest oddball – piano-ballad closer “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” – that proves the very point of LCD Soundsystem’s existence: yes, James Murphy can do just about anything.

Watch: “Someone Great” video

Neon Bible

Take the poison of your ageLook, it was bound to happen. Unless the Arcade Fire were able to follow Funeral with the greatest album ever made, they were going to fall victim to the vicious backlash of the indie world. The fact that they’ve managed to stay at the top of several year-end lists surprises me, because the buzz about Neon Bible at the netroots is considerably more negative.

And frankly, Neon Bible walked right into it. On the one hand, it mostly lacks the euphoric, joyous highs that defined Funeral and made the Arcade Fire the most exciting and championed band of the digital era. On the other, Neon Bible not a radical departure from Funeral’s core sound; through-and-through, it’s still an Arcade Fire album. Stuck between people who desired change and those that wanted more of the same, Neon Bible at times feels like an album designedto please no one.

Except me, of course (and, you know, the hundreds of thousands of other disciples in the Church of the Arcade Fire). Those who criticize Neon Bible as too different or too similar to Funeral miss the point – the albums is designed as Funeral’s dark mirror, twisting its sounds and themes not towards cathartic joy but brooding apocalypse. The record’s exhilarating moments – “No Cars Go,” “Intervention” – are as defiant as ever, but come a place of desperation. These are not salvation songs – these beautiful, hypnotic hymns reek of dread and fear. Funeral was a soundtrack for optimists; those of us who fear the times are as bad as (or worse than) they appear, we sleep with the Neon Bible held close to our hearts.

Will time prove Neon Bible a classic in the same league as its predecessor? Who knows? For now, its black wave of shadow and darkness looms long and menacing over our 2007.

Watch: “Intervention” live on SNL

In Rainbows

How come I end up where I started?If Marshall McLuhan is right, and the medium truly is the message, then this choice really shouldn’t be up for debate. If only it were actually that simple…

You may notice that of my top four albums – all of which held this top spot at one point or another as I built my list – In Rainbows was the only one that I never reviewed here at McNutt Against the Music. Believe me, I tried. The problem I ran into was that I really wanted to write about the music itself, removing it from the hype over the download-only, “pay what you want” release strategy that sent shockwaves through the record industry. But every time I tried to sever In Rainbows from “In Rainbows,” I failed.

The answer to my conundrum, of course, is that the two narratives are inseparable, and here’s why. For all the blog posts, industry navel-gazing and mainstream news coverage, it’s easy to forget that the band outwardly courted none of it. In what might be the most unassuming album release of all time, the band simply announced their intentions with a brief, almost cute statement on their Dead Air Space blog – 24 little words that created an explosion.

Likewise, In Rainbows might be the most unassuming record that Radiohead have ever made. I’m not sure what sort of album the band set out to record, but with nothing left to prove except their continued relevance, they saw fit to make a simple pop album – a real, honest-to-goodness pop album with hooks, melody and songs. Hell, it’s arguably their most song-driven album since The Bends. That’s not to say that Radiohead have spent the last decade or so just noodling around for nothingness’ sake; far from it. But In Rainbows is their warmest, most accessible record in quite some time.

The record’s accessibility – like the humble announcement of its release – is incredibly misleading; lying within is nothing short of quiet revelation after quiet revelation. What Radiohead have done with In Rainbows is take all of the lessons they’ve learned about soundscapes and dynamics through their years of experimentation and apply them to some of the best songs of their career. The results are stunning: the beautiful “Nude,” finally given the rendition it deserves; “All I Need,” with one of the most awe-inspiring sonic crescendos of the modern era; the soulful “House of Cards”; the haunting “Videotape.”

The most rewarding aspect of In Rainbows, and ultimately why I think I’ve placed it in this spot, is that for the first time in years Radiohead sound like a band again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a big fan as any of the band’s recent output, and some – particularly Kid A – ranks as this decade’s most essential music. But In Rainbows sounds like all the pieces of the Radiohead jigsaw puzzle fitting together in perfect harmony: the vocals, the rhythms, the sonic experimentation, the lyrics. For the greatest band of our generation, everything is indeed in its right place.

Watch: “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” video

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