Thursday, December 20, 2007

Mister Trend's Best of 2007

This year was an amazing year for music. There was so much great stuff that came out, as much from seasoned veterans (PJ Harvey, Radiohead, Thurston Moore) as relative newcomers (Arcade Fire, Liars, Burial, True Primes). Additionally, with so many albums coming out in the latter half of the year, this list looks radically different from the mid-year assessment. That said, here are my 15 best albums (plus a few other “bests”) of 2007.

1. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible – This one has it all – incredible, powerful, moving music and voices, lyrics deftly handling topics such as religious fundamentalism running rampant, loss of loved ones, culminating in the powerful “No Cars Go,” an anthem of youthful escape. There was none better than this in 2007.

2. PJ Harvey, White Chalk – 8 albums in, you know with PJ Harvey you’re going to get something you don’t expect, something new. Yet the ghostly sound of piano and Harvey’s voice reaching registers she almost never attempted before is stunning even by her standards (when I first heard the album, I seriously thought there must have been some mistake, because I was sure it wasn’t her voice on the album opener). Yet it is one of the most beautiful (and sometimes terrifying) things she’s ever done, and there hasn’t been an album this haunting in a long time.

3. Liars, Liars – When Drum’s Not Dead came out last year, I wondered if they could really push their sonic envelope further, as each album had gotten more and more abstract. Their response? An album of songs that, for the first time in Liars’ four albums, try to be catchy and hooky. They are extremely successful in this regard, yet their experimentalism and willingness to try new things from song to song (and even within the same song) remain. Four albums in, they have yet to release anything that is less than excellent.

4. Radiohead, In Rainbows – Most bands would kill to have 2 masterpieces in their lifetimes. But in the wake of The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, and now In Rainbows, Radiohead have managed nothing less than their fourth masterpiece. Just an amazing album, perfectly incorporating their experimental side of their more recent stuff with the rocking nature of their earlier works.

5. Panda Bear, Person Pitch – While I enjoy Animal Collective a lot, I thought Strawberry Jam fell flat. Fortunately, Collective member Panda Bear released an album of stuff that’s wonderfully sunny, psychedelic, poppy, adventuresome, and just plain fun.

6. Akron/Family, Love Is Simple – I saw them in Albuquerque a few years ago, and wondered if they would ever be able to translate their exciting and daring live show to an album (not that their earlier stuff was bad at all – it just paled compared to how they carried it off live). Love Is Simple shows they can bring that energy to an album, incorporating rock, folk, eastern chant, bluegrass, country, all into a sound unlike anybody else out there. Their other two albums are very good, but Love Is Simple kicks them into the stratosphere.

7. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver – Their debut was cheeky, funky, and fun. This album loses none of that (particularly on North American Scum, one of the best songs I’ve heard that expresses the current shame and pride one can simultaneously feel in being from the U.S.), yet in songs like “Someone Great” and the Baba O’Reilly-esque “All My Friends,” James Murphy has added a new emotional level to LCD Soundsystem’s music that makes it even better.

8. Sigur Rós, Hauf/Heim – Hands down the most interesting re-make album this year. A two-disc set, the first disc features them completely re-tooling 5 songs (two of which were almost impossible to find), giving them a new form of expression (and in the case of “Von,” a new kind of beauty) without losing the quintessential Sigur Rós sound. The second disc is just as daring. As they were touring parts of Iceland where they had no access to electricity, they had to re-imagine their songs accousticly. Avoiding the simple “MTV Unplugged” accoustic-version-of-the-same-song approach, the second disc also features complete overhauls of their music. It has the ethereal beauty common to Sigur Rós albums, but hearing these familiar songs in a new way from the same band is a revelation.

9. Arctic Monkeys, Favourite Worst Nightmare – Suffering from the U.S.-backlash over huge U.K. hype on last year’s Everything People Say I am, That’s What I Am Not didn’t deter the Monkeys. Favourite Worst Nightmare abandons the party-themed music of the debut for much more darker lyrics and a darker sound; if the first album was an ode to partying, Favourite Worst Nightmare is a physical and emotional hangover. The Monkeys have grown lyrically and musically by leaps and bounds in just one year, and there’s no telling where the limits are.

10. Thurston Moore, Trees Outside the Academy – I find most of Sonic Youth’s members’ solo stuff hit or miss, but Trees Outside the Academy may be the best of all their solo projects. It is clear that Moore just got together with some friends to make some great music. This is probably the best guitar album of the year. And the kicker? Moore plays accoustic guitar throughout. Far from being “Sonic Youth-lite,” this one is outstanding, and well worth checking out, even if you aren’t a Sonic Youth fan.

11. Burial, Untrue – Burial (an anonymous electronic music producer from England) offers this year’s most enigmatic album. Full of simple beats, ghostly voice samples fading in and out, and creepy atmospherics, he crafts the best electroninc album of the year. There is no one particular song that sticks out when you listen to it at first, yet by the end, you end up with a very deep and strong impression of the album that stays with you and keeps you coming back again and again.

12. The New Pornographers, Challengers – While I enjoy NP enough, I didn’t always understand the raves. They were really good pop songs, yes, but it wasn’t a second coming or anything, and over time, I found the albums starting to be a bit too same-y from one to the next. But Challengers changes that, adding much more melancholy, not being afraid to slow things down, and expanding the sound of the band. Far and away my favorite NP album (though I really just have never been able to get into the Bejar songs).

13. True Primes, We Have Won – Still the best avant-garde rock album not just of this year, but of the past several years.

14. Kings of Leon, Because the Times – Like the Arctic Monkeys, the Kings of Leon seemed to grow up radically in their subject matter between their last album (the exremely underrated Aha Shake Heartbrake) and this one. “Knocked Up” is probably the best opening track of any this year, and they rock hard throughout the album. Without question, the best straightforward rock album of 2007.

15. The Heliocentrics, Out There – Combining DJ-Shadow-style electronics and beats, jazz horns, and science fiction soundbites, Out There is definitely the “grooviest” (but not in the hippie sense) album of the year.

Best Re-issue
-There were a lot of really good re-issues of major artists (Robyn Hitchcock, Sly & The Family Stone) and albums (Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, which is even more amazing with the digital remastery). However, I still stick to my mid-year pick this year of the three albums by Betty Davis. The music world hasn’t known somebody as raw, carnal, funky, filthy, and sexy as Davis since her third album came out in 1977. Although it’s often a cliché in the music world, in her case her music really is a true force of nature, and while “funky” has since become practically a byword for “kind of cheesy”, her albums show how rough, rockin’, and real “funky” could be.

Best Box Set
-Miles Davis, The Complete On the Corner Sessions - This year, Columbia finally released the last in its 6-set box-set anthology of Davis’s time on the label, and The Complete On the Corner Sessions is far and away my favorite. The original 52-minute album that divides many Davis fans (even many who love his fusion stuff hate On the Corner) gets a 6-disc treatment. This may sound like cash-in excess at its worst, but the album’s 52 minutes were a thrown-together (but not in the perjorative sense) mix of numerous studio sessions and songs. This new box-set gives listeners an opportunity to hear each of the pieces that made their way onto the album (sometimes in only a few-minute bits) in their entirety, and they are nothing short of amazing. Davis had hoped to emphasize melody less and rhythm more with this album, moving a bit away from the rock-influenced sound of Jack Johnson, and the sessions reveal that. Also, despite 6 discs, there is no noodling, no unnecessary production of 8 different takes of the same song (the problem that plagued The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions). Instead, it’s just a great collection of the last great period of production Davis had.

Best Single
“Foundations”, Kate Nash – Nash’s album is really good overall, but Foundations is the standout track. It expresses better than any song I’ve heard in a long time the kind of relationship that has nothing left to offer, yet you can’t let go of (the chorus: “my fingertips are holding on to the cracks in our foundation/and I know that I should let go but I can’t/and every time we fight I know it’s not right/everytime I grow upset and I smile/I know I should forget but I can’t”). It expresses the pain both humorously and painfully (“You say I must eat so many lemons/cause I am so bitter/I say I’d rather be with your friends, mate/’cause they are all much fitter,” delivered in Nash’s brilliantly sarcastic, thick English accent). I’m not usually a lyrics-oriented guy, but Nash succeeds at every level (in the same way that I think Lily Allen falls flat), and it’s just a great song.

Best Album Title
Electric Six, I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me from Being the Master – The sentiment is made even more awesome by the wordiness.