Friday, June 29, 2007

The Top 10 Albums of 2007 (so far)

As we are officially at the halfway point of the year, it is time to offer my second annual "Best of the year (thus far)" list. Although there's a particular order on this list, it could (and probably will) change over time (indeed, looking back, I would probably switch around my number one, two and three albums of last year's best of, and I regret not having CSS on that list now). Plus, I haven't had much time to really let a few recent releases still sink in (the White Stripes' and the Queens of the Stone Age's new ones). With unannounced 2007 release dates of stuff from the Liars and Radiohead, among others, this list will no doubt change by the end of the year. Still, here are what I consider the best albums of 2007 so far.

1. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible - There's not much more I can say about this album that I haven't already said. If anything, it's only gotten better, musically, lyrically, and the emotions in it just get richer over time.

2. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver - James Murphy shows his 2005 debut was no fluke. Despite the seemingly silly opening-track title ("Get Innocuous"), Murphy again combines his dance, punk, soul, and rock sentiments together into music unlike anything else anybody does. From the killer lyrics both celebrating and regretting being American in "North American Scum" to the "Baba O'Reilly" piano line driving "All My Friends" to the hilarious and simultaneously heartfelt "New York I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down", there isn't a single misstep on this album.

3. Bjork, Volta - There's not much more I can say about Bjork that hasn't already been said here. Her ability not just to totally reinvent her sound every time, but to make it as daring, original, and compelling as the previous (and very different) effort makes her one of the most innovative minds in music right now, and where the inclusion of Pussycat Dolls/Justin Timberlake/Smelly Furtado producer Timbaland seems like it might fall flat, Bjork's songwriting abilities just make it even better. This is unquestionably her most varying album in sound since 1995's Post, but it's no less daring or amazing than everything since Homogenic. Like Duss, Bjork is one of those few people whose album I know I'll buy even before I know a damn thing about it.

4 Arctic Monkeys, Favourite Worst Nightmare - Their debut in the U.S. last year was unfortunately a case of British over-hype taking its toll (sorry, England - no way they're already in the top 10 debut albums of all time). Yet the American-backlash-to-British-overhype was also overdone, leading many to ignore what was one of the best rock albums last year. Some may question how useful it is to crank out a second album so quickly, but "Favourite Worst Nightmare" is light years the Monkeys' debut. Where the first was light, fun, and about partying, this is all darkness and mystery, with the guitars gaining a far harder edge than they had on the debut. From the pounding "Brianstorm" to Alex Turner's tart voice soaring in "Balaclava" and album closer "505". If they Arctic Monkeys are going to continue to so rapidly mature and have their music grow, they can release albums whenever the hell they want.

5. Kings of Leon, Because of the Times - KOL are one of the bands that sort of disappeared after the "garage revival" hype earlier this decade, which is a real shame. 2005's "A-ha Shake Heartbreak" was criminally underrated and ignored. Fortunately, the quality continues, and the Followill clan are just learning to rock better and better. They still have their southern-fried sound, but the real treat is album opener "Knocked Up", which, with its pulsing drumbeat and driving bass pushing Caleb Followill's mumbled lyrics and the soaring, fleeting guitar, shows how great this family of rockers is at updating southern rock.

6. True Primes, We Have Won - Many may consider this album bizarre noise, but New York's Che Chen and Rolyn Hu have used drums, guitar amps, pedal fuzz, and unintelligble moans and words to release the best avant-garde material in a long time. Their fragmented pop songs are remarkable, and really bring back the notion of music as being "art" that is performed, without any of the pretention. The genius of the way they splice and connect their fragments in one wall of anthemic daring, and make it without question the most original album of the year (quite a feat when Bjork has new mateiral out).

7. Bloc Party, A Weekend in the City - Up until about a month ago, this would have been in my top 3, but now. It's a great album, and the quiet-loud explosion on the opening track sets up the album perfectly. No other album this year has had the political and social urgency of Bloc Party's material, and they've devloped both their political lyrics and their sound significantly since their debut (there's nothing like the earnest-but-hamfisted "Price of Gas" here). My one quibble is the album gets a bit slow in the middle, seeming like it would be better served to be 45 than 55 minutes, but the glorious ending of "I Still Remember," "Sunday," and "SRXT" make everything forgivable. People may be getting tired of that "post-punk" sound, but Bloc Party is just honest to god good, angular rock.

8. Dinosaur Jr., Beyond - With the reuniting and subsequent recording sessions of the original Dinosaur lineup (J., Murph, and Lou), there was much hope for another You're Living All Over Me, or at least another Bug. However, it turns out, we get another Where You Been, with Mascis's guitars wailing through the air, reminding us once again what a genius he is with the guitar turned up to 11. The album is as tight and great as anything since "Where You Been", and with the inclusion of two Barlow songs (always a point of contention up to their 1988 expulsion of Barlow), one hopes that Dinosaur Jr.'s back for good. This is just an awesome, awsome, sprawling album of great, fuzz-blasted, destructive guitar rock.

9. Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank - When I heard that Johnny Marr was going to be on the album, I was terrified. I've never gotten the Smiths, and ever since their breakup, I've found his stuff as self-indulgent and uninteresting as anything since the Doors. However, mercifully, Isaac Brock apparently has the bigger personality, and this is still a Modest Mouse album, through and through, full of the "ugliness as beauty" approach that often characterizes Brock's vocals, all over generally beautiful and fierce melodies. While the album has some more weak points than other modest mouse albums (the appearance of the Shins' James Mercer on "We've Got Everything" does nothing to an already mediocre song), but when it's good, it's great, particularly on the poppy, driving "Dashboard", the balalaika thump of "Parting of the Sensory", and Mercer's additions to the great "Florida". See also "Spitting Venom" and opener "March into the Sea". Not their best work, but still, overall outstanding, and finally, I can appreciate something Johnny Marr has been involved in.

10. Air, Pocket Symphony - I've talked about this one already, too. To me, this isn't quite as great as the Air-penned Charlotte Gainsbourg album 5:55 from last year. Still, it's some of the lushest, darkest, and warmest music Air has provided yet, and is a welcome development in their sound and songwriting skills.

Best Re-Release: I'd love to go with the remastered edition of Daydream Nation (it's cliche, but hearing it remastered is like I never heard it before), but thus far, this has to go to the re-release of Betty Davis's three 1970s funk albums. Davis was married to Miles Davis for a year, turning him on to Jimmy Hendrix and serving as his muse as he moved towards fusion (and he ended up divorcing her, allegedly, because she was too crazy for him!). Davis's funk is some of the rawest, nastiest, dirtiest, and funnest funk to come out of the 70s, aided by Sly & the Family Stone's rhythm section and produced by Stone's drummer, Greg Errico. Her first album (simply self-titled), but they are all of such high quality, the three albums (Betty Davis, They Say I'm Different, and Nasty Gal) are all well worth the wait for re-release.