JEREMY HART (The Dude):
Welcome to 2007, the Year H-Town Music Destroyed Me. Seriously, when I started to sift back through all of the incredible music I fell for last year, I was stunned to realize that for the first time in quite a while, there were a lot of Houston bands and releases on the list. So many, in fact, that I really had to fight to whittle my list down to just 10 -- so I, uh, didn't. Yeah, I'm breaking my own (self-imposed) rules, but darnit, what's the point of being The Boss if you don't get to bend 'em every once in a while, right?
Even with my list opened up to a whopping Top 15, though, there was still a lot of heartache involved in this. And in some cases, yes, it was the local releases bumping the national ones off the short list. It broke my heart to push Parts & Labor's Mapmaker and the Fatal Flying Guilloteens' Quantum Fucking, in particular, off the bottom of the list, but dammit, it had to be done. Gotta draw the line somewhere. Anything that's in the "Honorable Mentions" section is, well, only there and not in the short list by a hair's breadth of difference, I swear -- despite the naysayers out there, this year was a really good year for music in general.
So, here it is.
Despite my love of Billy Bragg, New Model Army, and the Dropkick Murphys, I never in a million years thought that somebody would ever come along and meld punk rock and folk music so fully and completely that the resulting amalgam would stand proudly on its own two legs. Lucky for me, I was wrong. American Steel's Destroy Their Future blends the two so skillfully as to obliterate the line altogether and make me wonder, "why in the hell hasn't somebody done this before now?" Add to that the bitter, angry, working-man's-view of the political shambles of a country in which we live, not to mention the brain-crushingly addictive, Alkaline Trio-esque shout-along choruses of songs like "Smile On Me" and "Dead and Gone," and you've got, well, what feels to me, at least, like the best damn album of the year.
After Jimmy Eat World's good-but-not-great Futures from a couple of years back, in '07 I was really, really hoping for a return to form with Chase This Light. Sadly, I didn't get it, but fortunately for me, it didn't matter, because in the meantime I got this debut EP from Houston post-emo/indie-rock heroes Stadium, and frankly, it blows pretty much any emo-rock-ish release I've heard this year off the map. Change of plans, we're coming home also has the distinction of being the disc that's lived in my car CD player the longest over the last several months -- these guys are incredible when it comes to writing sing-along-able hooks, all the while skirting plain old alt-rock by sneakily melding their melodic leanings with post-hardcore sharpness borrowed from Jawbox's garage. I honestly have a hard time getting my head around the fact that this is a local, self-released disc, 'cause it sounds like it should be killing every lame-ass band that's on the radio right now.
Damn, I love the backstory on this one. Originally discovered as a soul singer back in '62, LaVette had a couple of minor-minor hits, recorded a full album down at Muscle Shoals in '72...and then got dropped by Atlantic before it was released. She bounced from club to festival to club for the next 30 years, unable to break back in and never hitting the fame her Motown-era peers saw, 'til a French collector found the masters of her '72 album and put it out on his own record label. Since then she's made an awesome indie-level comeback, and this album has her going back to Alabama to record, this time with the Drive-By Truckers as her backing band (lead Trucker Patterson Hood also produces the deal), as well as some of the original musicians who played with her on the '72 recordings (including Hood's dad, David Hood, and Spooner Oldham). It's funky and gritty, equal parts soul, blues, and country, and it dives deep into the low, bitter darkness of a life/career derailed for no good reason at all.
A close contender for the car-CD-player-residence title, this album and band were pretty much what introduced me to the wonders of Myspace. No, really -- up to that point I'd essentially blown off the whole Myspace phenomenon as just a time-wasting pseudo-replacement for a band having a "real" Website. Then I got handed The Western Civ's Myspace page, and lo and behold, "Love Sick Angel" and "Revelations 21:8" had me fumbling on the floor trying to find where the lower half of my face had gone to. The Western Civ is a band full of talented, talented songwriters, all bouncing off of one another and singing their respective hearts out, and the result is a bittersweet, poignant, earnestly innocent sound like all your favorite Saddle Creek bands come to the Texas suburbs.
A late addition, actually, but one I absolutely couldn't miss. I've never before seen a film where the music was literally the main character, above and beyond the supposed protagonists, but that's definitely the case with Once -- make no mistake, "Guy" and "Girl" aren't the real players here, the music itself is, and the actual people are just there to push it along to its sad-yet-hopeful conclusion. Best of all, it's freakin' brilliant stuff, good enough that I was hooked before I even got the soundtrack in hand. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova absolutely deserve the Oscar they so happily received for crafting music for a "band movie" that's for once worthy of the acclaim given by the characters in the film. The sappy, inane songs from Enchanted frankly didn't stand a chance.
I was devastated when Silkworm drummer Michael Dahlquist was killed in a car wreck, literally bringing to a crashing end not only Dahlquist's life but the life of one of the bands that served as a true touchstone in my formative (well, college) years. There was a time, for me, when Silkworm were the band, above and beyond all others. We had a parting of the ways over the years, naturally, as tastes changed and the band's sound mutated ever so slightly, but I'd still listen to "Three Beatings" or their version of "In the Bleak Midwinter" and smile, wondering what they were up to, like you wonder about an ex with whom you'd parted amicably years back. When Michael died, that ended. It's fitting, then, that Hammer of the Gods is essentially an elegy to him from his former bandmates. It's more than that, though, when you listen close -- what this album is is the sound of grief and fury, sorrow and pain, all transmitted via metal strings, drums, and cables to your ears. And it's wonderful in its bleak, heart-ripped-out vulnerability, which is quite possibly the best tribute anyone could ever pay to that guy behind the drums with the friendly smile and crazy mop of hair.
I've heard it said that a city gets the scene it deserves; I'd add to that that sometimes it gets the band it deserves, as well. For sweaty, ugly, quasi-polluted, business-rules-all Houston, the city that kinda-sorta defines the whole Ugly American aesthetic, The Jonx are one of a small-small handful of bands that fit the bill. They're loud, brawny, complex, and sarcastic and earnest at the same damn time, somehow, like The Minutemen transplanted to Clutch City. (Which makes some sense, considering that both bands sprang out of what're probably two of the biggest urban-sprawl metropolises in the country.) Luckily, The Jonx also happen to be both tight as hell and brilliant at what they do, and they're genuinely nice guys with a great sense of humor, besides. "Cashews" is one my top ten songs of the year, on any album.
Yes, she's a trainwreck -- boy, howdy, is she ever -- but that doesn't take away from the fact that Back to Black is a jaw-dropping set of probably the best updated R&B songs you heard this year. (I mean, c'mon, who didn't hear "Rehab"?) Winehouse is raw and sultry at the same time, daring you to fall for her while simultaneously warning you off. When was the last time a female artist actually sounded dangerous? Alanis Morissette? Please. Courtney Love? The ex-Mrs. Cobain's history of self-destruction looks posed by comparison. Ms. Winehouse is real and ragged in the way that no female singer's been since, oh, Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday were alive. When she sings about how far gone she is, you know she's not just faking it for the street cred. Couple that with that smoky, damaged voice, the awesome power of her backing band (which I'm told includes members of the Dap-Kings), and the genuine catchiness of her songs, and we've got a star worth watching closely as she inevitably flames out spectacularly over the course of the next few years.
Thank God for Big Dumb Rock. The LP4 make this big-ass smile crack all across my face and my feet and hands start manically air-drumming, all while those awesomely sludgy/crunchy guitars roar and blaze in the foreground and Clint Heider bellows and howls about alien abductions, desert landscapes, and who knows what the fuck else. Sit back, smile, and bang yr head, y'all.
Okay, so Bring Back The Guns are #2 on the list of Bands Houston Deserves (And Let's All Be Thankful For It) -- they're chaotic and crazed, with songs that ride the line between falling apart entirely and being perfectly-crafted indie-rock tracks. One second you think they're totally nuts, all about the noise and not much else, and then they morph effortlessly into this amazing chorus/break/whatever that absolutely won't leave your brain no matter how hard you try to get it out (well, assuming you're dumb enough to want to, that is). I enjoyed their first crack at a release, back when they called themselves Groceries, but it always felt like they were only halfway there. With Dry Futures, Matt Brownlie & crew have taken it all the way.
The first time I listened to Reunion Tour, I found myself weirdly disappointed. The songs were good, yeah, as pretty much anything John Samson touches is bound to be, but it felt like it was missing the fire of the two previous albums, particularly the harrowing Left and Leaving. Shame on me for trusting the first impression. Over the course of the next few weeks, however, I found myself listening, again and again, and a little, warm smile kept dawning on my face every time a new song would start, whether it was about Cards Night at the local bar, the telephone crash-and-burn of a floundering stockbroker, or Samson's sadly-departed cat Virtute. The songs are these little encapsulated windows into life up in the WKs' hometown of Winnipeg, Alberta, and they're wistful, sweet, poignant, and fiery all at the same time.
Arthur really is one of the true treasures of the Houston music scene, a full-on troubadour who can do pretty much anything he sets his mind to, whether it's raw, guitars-in-your-face rockers, lilting Spanish folk, seductive bedroom pop, or -- with this album, mostly -- bluesy roots rock. Handshakes Smiles isn't my fave album of his, I'll admit (I'll Be Here Awake takes that honor), but it's the one where he sounds at his most comfortable and confident, his most self-assured.
I haven't heard boy/girl call-and-response vocals this good since The Anniversary's Designing a Nervous Breakdown, but this album steps clear of that band's shattered emo and into nearly Mae-like sunshine territory -- the members of 1997 honestly sound happy to be singing and playing these songs, belting 'em out with as much joyous noise as they can muster.
Strange, half-hidden, sublimely gorgeous indie-folk that sounds less like it came out of the same Appalachian South that gave birth to people like Iron and Wine and William Elliot Whitmore and more like it came out of a different time entirely. This band's awesomely-packaged debut EP (holy shit, that's real wood, with the band name burned into it...) pulls in gospel, blues, bluegrass, and indie atmospherics to make a compellingly melancholy brew of indie-folk that's been percolating around my head since I picked up the disc.
When visiting relatives in London a year or two ago, I came to the realization that there are only a handful of bands that really "sound" like that city, at least to me. The Clash, The Jam -- those are the no-brainers -- Cock Sparrer, maybe Art Brut, and that's really about it. A Weekend in the City, though, elevates Bloc Party into that rarefied crew, to the point where I can hardly think about London without A Weekend in the City popping into my head.
MENTIONS OF THE HONORABLE KIND:
THAT ONE DAMN SONG THAT RULED MY LIFE FOR A WHILE:
MEL HOUSE (The All-Seeing Eye):
10 Escapist Things That Kept Me Sane in 2007
Sure, he started in 2006, but I think 2007 is when Carey really hit his stride with the title. He took risks with the lineup in his book, he wrote cool new things without ignoring past continuity, and he wove all that cool stuff up to a pretty damn good climax with the "Messiah CompleX" crossover. Yeah, I know "Messiah CompleX" ran into '08, but it was the first half of Carey's story that really had me hooked -- the stakes had obviously been raised beyond mutants simply throwing each other beatings. To be fair, the crossover was a collaborative effort with the rest of the X-writers...but I think Carey's title was easily the best scripted.
I met Frank when I did the 2nd annual SXSW mini-tour with Jonah Matranga in 2007. He was part of the touring package, and I got to see him play three or four different times on that run. I don't believe Frank's album had yet come out Stateside, but after hearing the songs live, I knew that I had to pick it up when it did. The former Million Dead frontman's solo album is chock full of acoustic folk that's snide, funny, angry, political, smart, and catchy...usually all at the same time. It's even got a fiddle solo...in a song that name-checks Minor Threat and Black Flag.
Frank Darabont had long ago cemented his place as the go-to guy for adapting Stephen King's non-horror books to the big screen. With The Mist, he pretty much became the go-to guy to adapt any King stuff to the big screen -- now and forevermore. It's no real surprise, seeing as how Darabont got his start in the biz by writing genre scripts like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and the remake of The Blob. Darabont did the unthinkable and actually improved upon the story, in my opinion...and that's saying a lot, because I really dig the story. He also added a narrative gut-punch at the end that actually deserves such a pugilistic description in an era where every movie has a "twist ending." Yes, including mine.
So...by this point I've lost all journalistic integrity as far as the subject of Jonah is concerned. I've played in his band, I've directed a few videos for him, and I consider him a very good friend of mine. But fuck it, as a fan and a casual listener, I still enjoyed the hell out of And. I think it's Jonah's most solid solo album, and also the one with the least amount of ex-emo-rocker baggage. Hell, at times, it's almost rootsy. And the b-sides are just as good as the album tracks, so make sure you pick up all those crazy import versions of the CD, as well.
Even though I'm a huge comic dork, I've always liked the Hulk more in theory than actual practice. I'm not a huge fan of most of the title's run, with its alternate dimensions, timelines, Pantheons, etc. Big Green is at his best when he's, quite simply, fucking shit up. And that's what the World War Hulk crossover/event seemed to be predicated on. At least at first. But then, amidst all the destruction and mayhem, and Hulk totally dealing on the entire Marvel roster...thematic skeins of betrayal, perception, intent, morality, and responsibility began to pop up. So not only was I reminded why "Hulk is the strongest there is," I was also re-introduced to the power of (somewhat deceptively) simple storytelling. Just to set the record straight, I'm talking about Greg Pak's five main issues, here. None of the above applies to the sub-par tie-in titles.
Man, I love Danny Boyle. Pretty much unconditionally. At this point, I can safely guarantee that anything the man makes will thoroughly entertain me. It will also, as a filmmaker, make me insanely jealous. Such is the case with Sunshine, which entertained me, made me insanely jealous, and left me awestruck. Not to say the movie is perfect...like many others, I too felt that the final-reel switch into Event Horizon mode was a bit jarring. But, with that said, I think Boyle made it work as best as he could and managed to bring in a save, resulting in the best sci-fi movie I've seen in a long time. The cast deserves their due as well -- it's as if they took most everyone from my Top 20 list of actors, and they all positively kill in their roles and characterization. Now if only we could get Boyle (who bowed out of helming Alien: Resurrection) to make good on his past mistakes and direct Alien 5.
Thankfully, it looks like Jeff Tweedy and Co. have had their fill of noodling and "sound shape" tomfoolery. Not that I don't like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot...but, well, I kind of don't like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I know that's hipster blasphemy, and I should be crucified to the strains of The Arcade Fire, but I'm just being honest here. Sky Blue Sky marks a near-return to form for Wilco, to my ears, pretty much splitting the sonic difference between their first three albums. Good songs, good grooves, and some suitably zonked-out solos from Nels Cline -- what more could you want?
My love for Danny Boyle is second only to my love for David (The Fly, Videodrome) Cronenberg. While "Depraved Dave" isn't so seemingly depraved anymore, he still makes damn good movies. Eastern Promises makes a perfect companion piece to A History of Violence, since it also is deeply rooted in the ramifications of living a violent life -- for good or ill. Viggo Mortensen turns in another tour-de-force alongside the always welcome (for me, anyway) Vincent Cassel and Naomi Watts. Plus the movie includes the best buck-naked beatdown ever committed to film.
With this book, Norman Brannon became one of my favorite authors as well as one of my favorite guitarists. Way back before Norm (he will always be "Norm" to me) played in Texas Is The Reason and New End Original, he published a 'zine called Anti-Matter. Anti-Matter was renowned for its coverage of the '90s hardcore, post-hardcore, and post-punk scene, with interviews as much about the musicians as they were about the music. The Anti-Matter Anthology collects the best interviews and features of the zine's run, including interviews with Quicksand's Alan Cage, Into Another's Richie Birkenhead, and Jawbox's J. Robbins (of course), among a slew of others. Even though the material is 10-15 years old, it still resonates, and it even casts some indie-rock luminaries in a new light.
No, not the Chris Farley movie. This Black Sheep is a 2007 horror-comedy from New Zealand. Since I said "New Zealand" and "horror-comedy," you're probably thinking "Peter Jackson." And you'd be right. I'm assuming that we all realize that Jackson didn't spring out fully-formed and direct the Rings trilogy and King Kong. For those that do think that, try checking out his back catalog to see where all that Kiwi genius comes from. With Black Sheep, director Jonathan King gives us the closest thing to Jackson's Bad Taste and Dead/Alive (a.k.a. Braindead)...well, since Bad Taste and Dead/Alive. Not that other directors haven't tried. King gets it right, though, with a little help from ol' P.J. in the form of the WETA F/X Workshop. Sheep that maul people and turn them into were-sheep. Genius.
After the last few albums of experimentation, Jeff Tweedy and company release a solid album of traditional arrangements, standard blues lyrics and all-out guitar-shredding leads. Sky Blue Sky stayed on my stereo every day for a few months. What else is there to say? It's Wilco!
Radiohead has conquered my stereo with their cleanest record in years. Just as with Sky Blue Sky, In Rainbows is a broken-down, polished album, made by taking away layers, adding energy, and just letting the instruments speak for themselves. It seems Radiohead just hit "Record" and let these songs write themselves. No noise, no excess, just well-structured songwriting.
A departure from her programmed, electronic filled last record, The Reminder, Feist's second album, comes at you with a raw, emotional approach. It's nice to hear radio-friendly songs made with real instruments, sing-a-long lyrics, and a solid voice. A voice that hasn't been tweaked so much it sounds like Daft Punk. I heard it was recorded in only two weeks; if so, someone give this girl a studio. I'm ready to hear more.
One of the most polished studio records on my list. Rock n' roll's not dead, it's just getting weirder. Full of strange, sexy, and evil thoughts. Era Vulgaris brings out a mixture of emotions that make you want to see your neighbor's head explode and fuck them up against a red clay wall. Or maybe that's just me.
Interpol hasn't done one thing different on this album. Not one. For that reason alone, this album works. The lyrics alone make you feel alone and in love. In most cases, that makes you crazy. Depression works for everyone these days -- just ask the person next to you how many pills they're taking. There's a good chance they have a bagful. After a listen to Our Love to Admire, they will either up their dosage or be appointed to a different psychiatrist.
Dinosaur Jr. returns with the classic line up of J Mascis, Murph, and Lou Barlow. Recalling the time of Bug, Beyond would have been a force to be reckoned with if released in '89. When the opening track, "Almost Ready," hits your speakers, you will smile. The guitars growl, the leads attack, and Murph hits with everything he's got. I play this album at full volume every listen. Even Lou Barlow comes in, painful and true, with some of his best writing in years. Play this one at 11 with the speaker in your lap.
Not a record I thought would make my list, yet I keep coming back to it. I was never a big fan, but something about this record pushed my buttons. These guys can play. I remember seeing them in a living room once in '98 -- not the same band at all. It's nice to see a band experimenting, trying something new, and, in fact, growing up. I seem to be drawn to the Vol. 2 [Water] disc more, but maybe that's my inner beast trying to tame itself. Two more discs on the way.
It seems there is an ongoing theme to my top ten: "back to basics." '07 must have been the time every one said, "What the fuck? Let's just play some music!" Which is what Jack White does best. Bringing his fuzzy blues/rock riffs to the front of each song, the White Stripes have once again pulled off a fun, crafty album. Icky Thump stuck to my shoe just like their early albums.
If things keep going the way they are, this could be the soundtrack to the future. And I'm not talking about vampires. I'm talking desolate, dark, cold, and disturbing. Getting away from the usual orchestral or techno sounds in most of today's horror movies, Brian Reitzell does a great job of constructing atmosphere. Reitzell puts you into an uncomfortable dimension of pounding rhythms and windy shrieks. Listen to this with head phones in the dark -- you'll regret that you did! But that's the fun part. If the name sounds familiar, check out the Lost In Translation soundtrack.
Want to hear a comedian growing as an artist? Take a listen to this. Stop watching TV reruns and go see this man live.
Top 10 Movies of 2007, accompanied by the best quote from the film:
"It's one of those two, love or revenge, I'm not really sure which one. But it's one of those two that made me throw a cello through somebody's window, so you figure it out." -- Hal
"An innocent prisoner will become more angry by the hour due to the injustice suffered. He will shout and rage. A guilty prisoner becomes more calm and quiet. Or he cries. He knows he's there for a reason." -- Hauptman
"For seven years, I spoke with God. He told me to take us all to Heaven." -- Pinbacker
"We bring him in wi' us to show him a bloody good time and you've just friggin backhanded him roun' his head. I'M DISAPPOINTED, MATE!" -- Woody
"Now I'm going to do his teeth and cut off his fingers. You might want to leave room." -- Nikolai
"Then I go inside the airport and I'm watching. I'm watching on the television... and I... I saw it. I saw it and I felt it at the same time. I thought about Geena's birthmark, and I... I felt them burning." -- Charlie
"Mr. Franz, I think careers are a 20th century invention, and I don't want one." -- Christopher
"My Lit professor at Cornell compared me to Hemingway! The middle of my life is at hand, and I don't have a couch!" -- Clifford
"I won't tell you you can save yourself, because you can't." -- Anton
"You slithered out of your mother's filth. They should have put you in a glass jar on a mantle!" -- Daniel
I remember thinking sometime in early January of 2007 that this would be the musical year of my life. I was sitting on my back porch listening to the Decemberists' The Crane Wife, giddy with excitement about what was to come in the next few months. After all, we were to get new records by Bright Eyes and Animal Collective this year, right?, I thought to myself; that would be enough. All I needed were those two albums, and my year would be complete. And then it happened. Overload. It seemed like every other week something great (some transcendentally great) came out, and I resigned myself to thinking that I should probably die at the end of this year just to let my ears know it's never gonna get any better than this. In no particular order (because order's for fakers), my top ten of 2007.
It's easy to figure why Conor Oberst's most recent release didn't make it on any of those "experts'" top of 2007 lists -- he's too smart for 'em. All of 'em. Cassadega, Bright Eyes' first release since 2005's Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I'm Wide Awake it's Morning, is something we've never seen before. Ever. Ever ever. What Conor is doing here is (1) genius and (2) maybe too ballsy for his own good. He has created a record that is at the same time kowtowing to the capitalistic masses and trying to destroy those very same capitalistic masses because he clearly despises them. And it works brilliantly. It's a record that is more accessible than anything Bright Eyes has ever done, but it's also a record that is more complex and much more layered than anything Bright Eyes has ever done. Conor has created a suicidal opus dedicated to himself, and something like that is hard for most critics to get on board with. The metaphors on this album abound, and the literary references flow seamlessly between songs to make Cassadega read like a postmodern novel both self-referential and disconnected from any idea Conor has of self. No one in music has the courage that Bright Eyes has, and that courage is evident on this record. It's not something that will be forgotten anytime soon -- it has the power to start revolutions.
When I heard that Band of Horses was set to release their follow up to the brilliantly melodic Everything All the Time, I was skeptical. Skeptical that they couldn't possibly top the beauty and profound sadness of their debut release. After all, Everything All the Time is almost perfect-sounding -- every song seems to move the listener to an emotional reservoir that may not have been there before. It's hard not to feel uncomfortable when listening to Ben Bridwell sing about death and/or weed because of his uniquely spotless voice, and I didn't think he could bring himself to create something more emotionally preying than his first release. I was wrong. Very wrong. Cease to Begin is a more confident record, a fuller record, and a better record. Try listening to "Cigarettes Wedding Bands" and not swear off marriage for the rest of your life. Can't be done. Bridwell is clearly finding his way in the indie music scene, and his way is easy to love. And for the love of god, please stop comparing this band to the Shins or My Morning Jacket.
When I first saw Beirut at SXSW last year, I was blown the f away. Never in a million years did I think a voice like Zach Condon's could exist outside the recording studio. But let me tell you something, friends: this boy's got some pipes. And he's what, 22? And for all the musicians that make up this critically drooled upon (and sometimes panned upon) band, it's clear when seeing them live that this is Zach's band. Period. He sings, he's a master ukulele-ist, and he's a trumpet-playing prodigy. What can't he do, you ask? Nothing, it seems. On The Flying Club Cup, Beirut weaves their way through songs about smiling on a Sunday, singing to a lover who won't get out of bed, and the warmth of a freshly made bed. In all, Beirut's lyrics are simple enough to allow the audience to fully feel the power of the complex instrumentation. There are accordions, cellos, guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, drums, violins, organs, tambourines, saxes, glockenspiels, trumpets, and euphoniums. And then there's that voice. It all fits together in a way that will force you to listen to it obsessively, which is not a bad thing at all. Not with this band.
On first listen, Matt Berninger's liquidy baritone voice recalls Bill Callahan or David Berman, but let's not get carried away, right? You might be thinking to yourself, The National has nothing on Smog and, for crying out loud, The Silver Jews? These bands are royalty, and The National are only getting started. But I'm here to tell you, The National are on their way to reaching legend status. If I were to create a top ten list of the decade, I would be hard pressed to put Boxer anywhere below #1. It's just that good. You know those albums that you keep close by at all times because they take you to unexplainable places? This is one of those. It's hard to write a review of this record as a whole, because every single song seems full enough to be its own album, if that makes sense. "Mistaken for Strangers" will have you questioning every single relationship you've ever thought you might have had. And it's terrifying to do, believe me. "Apartment Story" will force you to consider the fact that we are all merely the subjects of our own consumption, and then realize that that's okay as long as we can hold ourselves with our arms around the stereo.
I must have read 50 top ten lists this year, and not a one (yeah, not one) included the sophomore release by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. This obviously forced me to wonder, what is wrong with you people? There wasn't an album released this year that was easier to love. Every single song pops with danceability (and isn't that what it's all about?), and almost every song allows me to sigh a sigh of relief and say to myself, finally our generation has its David Byrne. On Some Loud Thunder, Alec Ounsworth answers many of life's unanswerable questions. What will it feel like when we all go to hell, you might be wondering? Take a listen to "Satan Said Dance." Spoiler alert -- Satan dances. How does one go about having a relationship with a girl that will never end? On "Mama, Won't You Keep Them Castles in the Air and Burning," Alec tells us--read Marx. I want to say that critics simply forgot about this album because it came out so early in the year, but that might just be me giving them the benefit of the doubt. This is easily the most forgotten record of 2007, and there's just no excuse for that. Alec and the boys in CYHSY have given us the recipe for what it takes to be kids in grown up bodies, and what else is music supposed to do?
Mix one part Shout Out Louds, two parts Tilly and the Wall, one half part the Faint, and four pairs of dancing shoes (with holes), and the result you'll get is Capgun Coup. Simply put, Brought to You by Nebraskafish is a balls-out, politically-tinged dance record. And it's wonderful stuff. It's almost always loud, it's sometimes brutally angry, and other times it's bitterly sweet. This album fits nicely into the Saddle Creek/Team Love ethos that Conor Oberst is constructing up there in Omaha, and there are songs that will force you to get up and take notice of the political world we're forced to live in, while at the same time wondering how in god's name your feet are moving so fast. Tracks like "A Liar in Texas in a Green Room in Memphis," "Blood Sweat and Sex," and "Bobby Chops and the Do-Gooders" stand out as ones that may just consume every second of your day.
What can be said about Animal Collective that hasn't been already by the myriad bloggers who swoon over every move this group of noise gods make? It's sort of hard to describe just how great they are without sounding hyperbolic, but I'll try anyway. The boys from Baltimore have been making primordial and experimental noise rock for almost a decade now; but not, it seems, until 2007's Strawberry Jam has the band constructed a recognizable musical identity. That identity? They have become a band capable of creating music that may just allow them to own the world. "Peacebone," "For Reverend Green," and "Fireworks" could all easily find their way into a top 10 song list for 2007, and those three songs highlight what will undoubtedly be considered one of the most important records to come out in years.
There is an interesting little genre bubbling up these days in the lo-fi cellar of the indie underground. It consists of bands that seem to care about music for the sake of difference; lyrics about writing lyrics that make for meta-narratives with disconnectedly minimal instrumentation are the norm in this deliciously postmodern genre, and along with Grizzly Bear, Menomena is at the head of the class. Friend and Foe sounds to me like what a Murakami novel might sound if put to music, and yes, that's a good thing. Muted horns and gorgeous pianos (and bee sounds?) sit comfortably next to the über-literary lyrics of lead singer Justin Harris, particularly on "Rotten Hell" and "The Pelican" (which sounds eerily similar to TV On The Radio). Menomena seems ready to take listeners to places we've never been, and trust me, it's going to be a fun ride.
Spencer Krug is smarter than me. And because of that, writing a review for Random Spirit Lover seems a bit hollow. It's not too often you see a music writer using the adjective "intimidating" when describing a band or a record or a singer, but Sunset Rubdown does that to me -- I am intimidated by them. It seems to me that Mr. Krug may have read just about every single book ever written, because his lyrics read as if he's writing in a different literary language; something akin to post-post-postmodernism. At the same time, though, his lyrics sound like they could exist in the 19th century. It's a strange dichotomy that I don't think any other band could pull off. That, along with his hauntingly pitch-perfect voice, gives Random Spirit Lover a leg up on its competition. I didn't think Spencer could outdo his own Swan Lake supergroup, but he has on this record. Every song is necessary here, and if you skip but one second of even one of them, you'll be missing something. It's an album that requires something many albums these days don't -- concentration.
Grizzly Bear can do no wrong. Ever. Any other band that would even think of releasing an EP full of other bands covering their songs (after releasing but two previous albums) may be called something like, um, incredibly self-important. But not Grizzly Bear. This record seems a natural extension of the necessary. Friend brings us Band of Horses covering "Plans" and CSS (weirdly) covering "Knife," both of which make the listener thank the musical gods that Grizzly Bear exists. Zach Condon of Beirut makes a brief appearance on "Alligator," and we (finally) get to hear Daniel Rossen sing "Deep Blue Sea" somewhere other than on YouTube. These songs fit together like a smile fits with 72 degrees and sunny. Friend is an inexplicably thorough and onion-layered album, maybe the best EP to be released in decades. Find me in 20 years, and I'll still think this record sounds new. So will you.
Henry's 2007 top 10 list, in no particular odor.
Wheels in Motion, Glenn Mercer's first solo album, is as good as anything he did with the Feelies. It takes all of the rave-ups on classic Feelies albums and takes them all down a notch or two -- the distorted guitars of old are replaced here by cleaner tones, keyboards, shakers, and the like. But it still has the warmth, the groove, and the beautiful melodies of the Feelies.
Ken Vandermark's most modern (i.e., rock-oriented) project to date, Powerhouse Sound comes in two incarnations: an Oslo version featuring double bass and electric bass and a Chicago version that features electric guitar and bass. They both succeed, but the Chicago one is the more visceral, and the more gratifying. It's also fun to hear Ken cut loose in his own projects again -- he hasn't sounded this ferocious since the early days of the Vandermark 5. And the Chicago band in particular matches him in energy and power.
Completely out of the blue, Dinosaur Jr. reunites and releases one of their best albums ever. Beyond features some of their most mature (but still compelling) work to date. The members seem to have matured, as well, given that Lou's songs are treated with as much respect as J's, which wouldn't have happened in the old days. The one bad thing, oddly, is the production, which is strangely toothless -- coming from someone who distributes templates to show the sound guys where to put mics, it's kind of strange. Nonetheless, the music still kills.
Most of Caetano Veloso's albums draw from the territory he initially mined in the '60s and '70s as one of the original Tropicalistas, ranging from straight rock to Brazilian styles to near-opera. But on Cê, he strips everything down to the basics -- guitars, bass, and drums -- and to thrilling effect. His son Moreno contributes guitar parts worthy of early Dinosaur Jr., and he pushes his voice to extremes you normally expect from somebody 30 years younger. But he doesn't take things too far -- it still sounds like himself.
Peter Brotzmann's Chicago Tentet increasingly sounds like ten Peter Brotzmanns. Until recently, the group had featured compositions by various members, but recently Brotzmann has been contributing pieces which focus the sound in ways that match his own. Despite what you might expect from having ten improvisers, the piece is carefully planned, and full-bore blowouts are made secondary to clever and nuanced pairings of a few members. All of which goes to show why some of America and Europe's finest improvisers have continued to make time for the group year after year.
Julie Doiron's voice is so spacey that it should only work with very minimal accompaniment. But she uses a band on Woke Myself Up, and it grounds the songs just enough to give them ballast. The band also gives her a way of showing more emotion, like the angry "Don't Wanna Be Liked By You," and the powerful "No More." They don't bring her down too far, though, which is good, 'cause she couldn't deliver a song like "The Wrong Guy" without her goofy charm.
Not quite as good as Reconstruction Site, which my girlfriend still won't give back to me, but with a band this good, even their lesser work is better than most bands' best. Epic as ever, the Weakerthans continue the good fight, weaving loops and other new sounds into the mix. Reunion Tour also features the first song to make me cry since "The Spiderbite Song" from the Lips' The Soft Bulletin. And the song is about a cat! How's that for songwriting chops?
He may be a MySpace rapper, but he doesn't sound like a MySpace rapper. He obviously listens to a lot of Common, but that's never a bad thing. The beats are cool; made from slightly fractured funk and soul samples that are also much better than you'd expect, they bring an modernized old-school vibe to the raps. But the raps are still the centerpiece. He writes about everything that happens in his West-Side neighborhood without glamorization: drug-dealing, sure, but also people getting high, kids on their bikes, all of the things you rarely hear about on most big commercial rap albums. As well as some of the best rhymes you've ever heard.
Speaker Speaker's EP We Won't March shows a lot of range for such a young band, from the title song, one of those classic statements of dissent that punks are so good at, to "Radio Days," about music and ex-girlfriends and cool harmonies. It's even more impressive that their songs stand up to their Jawbreaker cover, "Do You Still Hate Me." It's rare that a young band shows so much maturity and range in their songs right from the start. Considering that this is their first real album, it's even more impressive.
Bottomless Pit was formed from the remains of Silkworm when drummer Michael Dahlquist was killed by a speeding car, and their first record serves as a fitting tribute to Dahlquist. Most of the songs are about him, from the elegaic "Human Out of Me" to the harrowing "Greenery" to the epic "The Cardinal Movements." Musically, the album expands on the Silkworm template, blending thoughtful second guitar parts without getting in Andy's way. Apart from the dreadful circumstances, it's good to hear that Andy and Tim still have more great songs in them.
DANIEL JOSEPH MEE:
[Reprinted with minor alterations from snogfever.com
, courtesy of Danny.]
In honor of my first full calendar year of getting paid to write about music, I will now genuflect at the altar of hubris and offer my opinion on the best records of 2007.
Lately it's become somewhat fashionable in introducing these year-end blog lists to point out that everybody does it, that nobody's can really pretend to have any authority, that the author's opinion doesn't matter that much, etc. Well, the buck stops here. See that name up up there? That's my name, and that's the person with whose opinion this list is concerned. I'm writing this list on purpose because I have an opinion and I'm not going to pretend not to think it's important. My estimation is the one that counts here.
Now then, in rough order, these are the records that stuck with me from 2007.
Expecting something along the general lines of Godflesh, I was not prepared at all for this album, which drowns long, moshy, mid-to-down-tempo metal vamps in gauzy washes of sound effects and electronics. The songs themselves remind me of Killing Joke's more self-indulgent material, but the production owes a heavy debt to post-rock. I think this record successfully synthesizes the atmospheric tendencies of the post-rock movement with the attempts of post-metal bands like Isis and Sunn0))) to make metal stripped all of the metal signifiers. Perfectly balanced between crucial riffs and shattering emotion, this is a unique and revolutionary album.
I was blown away by Hella in 2002, but by 2005 they were starting to show signs of creative exhaustion. Before making this album they added three new members to the band, expanding from drums and guitar to include bass, keyboards, rhythm guitar, and, most surprisingly, vocals. This was a big risk for them; the simplicity of the two-piece band's sound made it a lot easier to digest the sheer amount of information in their music. Besides, I think a lot of their fans identified with drummer Zach Hill and guitarist Spencer Seim specifically and may not have been prepared to deal with all these new people. However, artistically I think the change was a complete success. There's No 666 In Outer Space is denser, richer, and more dramatic and meaningful than any other Hella album.
Another album I was not prepared for. Honestly, the Big Business live show bores me a little with the uniformity of its relentless pummeling, but this record has a ton of heart. These two guys just love to rock and be loud, and they have a big, rich, unique sound, without a hint of cliché or irony about it, that combines frantic motion with a majestic churning drone. The attitude behind this record reminds me a lot of SST punk.
This album has a few pretty boring songs on it, but it also has "Crumble" and "What If I Knew," which are two of the best songs J. Mascis has ever written, so I haven't gone for more than a couple of weeks without listening to it since it came out. I hope they put out another album and that it's better than this one, but this one is good enough for now.
Even after listening to this for weeks, I couldn't understand why I kept coming back to it. Maserati's music always struck me as directionless, and this album initially left the same impression. I think what the band was going for all along, and what this album finally delivers, is a pure in-the-moment musical experience, like a trance. Drummer Gerard Fuchs of Turing Machine and !!! make this possible in a way that it never was for Maserati before by turning their post-rock into a kind of dance music. I don't know if they intentionally went looking for that or if it came together serendipitously, but whatever the reason, it's an intriguing and sneakily infectious style.
The perfect counterpoint to Maserati, Houston's Motion Turns It On shred through dozens of Hendrix-as-post-rock riffs in just over half an hour on this laughably exciting album. If you like math-rock, these guys are your new god.
Few artistic attempts to deal programatically with 9/11 have been as intelligent, understated, and successful as this. Rather than take on the event directly, Vanderslice weaves images and feelings unobtrusively into songs that are about other things, creating a thematic undercurrent that mimics the way 9/11 itself became an unexpected part of nearly everything about American life after it happened, even for people who were directly unaffected. This album is so ingenious and powerful, so important, it should have been at the top of every indie rock year-end list, and instead it's all about Radiohead and how they fired their label. Who fucking cares.
In the other give-me-a-break publicity story of the year, Dave Longstreth from the Dirty Projectors claimed that this piece of abstract afro-beat pop was his attempt to rewrite Black Flag's Damaged from memory. Okay, whatever, but the fact is that Black Flag's lyrics set to this beautifully offbeat music is a WTF and a half, and I mean that in the best way possible. The angelic voices of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian do not hurt.
Like Emerald City, this is a heartbreakingly vital album that almost nobody seemed to notice. Silkworm guitarists Andy Cohen and Tim Midgett formed Bottomless Pit after drummer Michael Dahlquist's horrific death in 2005, and when viewed in light of that, this album's bleak exploration of loss is deeply moving. The title might easily refer to Cohen and Midgett's guitars, which here are devastating in a way they rarely were with Silkworm, and as only the electric guitar can be. This album is a great argument for rock as serious art, because almost no other form can capture the brutality of grief and anger as plainly and viscerally as this.
Tom and Christina Carter play a horrific joke on their listeners by promising them mind expansion and then trapping them inside their own mind on one of the most somber and claustrophobic psychedelic albums I've ever heard. Listening to this album is like wandering through a desert, except you aren't going anywhere, you're just floating there, and there's no sun or sand, just gray flatness. It's like being in limbo. I know that doesn't sound very pleasant, but it sure sticks with you.
Yeah, my brother's in this band. So what? I like some of the stuff of Deerhunter first record Turn It Up Faggot better than Cryptograms, but the latter is a more original record and in some ways a more interesting record.
Being simultaneously a member of and a critic of a local music scene has raised some really interesting questions for me about what the goals and values of music criticism are, and that is only deepened when a member of band is also a member of my family, and to boot the act is national, not local. Ultimately I think the answer is that music is an essentially personal phenomenon, and so far from impairing the critical perspective, direct personal involvement with music deepens it by making that personal nature easier to understand. Unfortunately, because it can have tangible impact on an artist's material success, music "journalism" is not an entirely disinterested discipline, and when I write professionally I find myself having to strike a constant balancing act between writing about music into which I have a personal insight and avoiding the appearance of promoting my friends' bands. Fortunately, it's not very hard for me to make those decisions, and in cases like Deerhunter, I can always write about them for free.
Anyway, Deerhunter was a breakout band in some circles this year, which I thought was awesome, and that's all I'm going to say about that.
Top Ten list of 2007
Being charged with coming up with a top ten of anything is difficult enough, as the moment the list is finished and submitted, you think about the fifty things you should have included. Given total freedom by our esteemed editor, my top ten list goes way beyond just music (although you will see enough of it here). The list is not necessarily in perfect order, but is presented roughly in order of influence or awesomeness (at least at the beginning).
You have read my review
, so there isn't much more to say. As good as their EP was
, The World's Affair
is a whole other level entirely, a near-perfect indictment of the current state of America and its leadership. An absolute masterpiece, one of those great albums that you wish never ends, reinvigorates your faith in music as both art and political statement. The.Story.Of should be the biggest band in the world.
Not only is the album amazing (it is), but Radiohead attempted a novel music distribution system, allowing fans to pay what they wanted to download the album. While many grumbled that the downloaded files were poor quality (especially from a band where the actual sound of the album is a priority), and some chose to pay nothing, numbers floating around the Internets suggest that 1.3 million people chose to download the album, and Radiohead sold over half a million units of the eighty dollar boxed set (you can do the math on that one). If not a perfect distribution system, Radiohead fires the first real shot across the bow of the record company dinosaurs, at least starting the debate about how to fix this antiquated and failing industry.
Voxtrot's Ramesh Srivastava is a musical savant in the same vein as Lennon or Eliot Smith, but not nearly so cranky (and Voxtrot's bass player looks just like a young Paul McCartney). Voxtrot keeps releasing their music in dribbles and drabs, eschewing long breaks between full-lengths and continually teasing us with EPs. At least for me, the EP format is better for young bands, since you can more easily see their progression by probing the experiment every few months rather than every few years. This EP is a perfect example, a murderer's row of amazing songs, each carefully crafted and executed with a gleefulness rarely seen in bands like this. If you are a musician, this EP will embarrass you. If you are a fan of great pop music, this EP will satisfy you as an appetizer for the hopeful main course to come (Note: a full-length is now out).
4. Blah, blah, blah.
It was here that I couldn't think of anything else that I really liked from 2007. Most of the albums I bought this year were from earlier, and you can read my reviews of the current stuff that comes across my desk to see why they didn't make this list. So I called my bandmate and music ninja Brad, who mailed me his top five albums from this year (all notes are his). They are in order for him, but I'll just designate these as numbers 4.1 through 7.9, so feel free to arrange them however you see fit.
A musical tour de force that effortlessly shifts gears, incorporating hints of emo, '60s pop, prog-rock, and Flaming Lips-ish weirdness, all tied together with a brilliant sense of form.
Another fine offering from this member of the Elephant 6 collective.
Kenny Tompkins and his colleagues from western Maryland have released a luminous collection of blues-tinted tunes. Devotees of Neutral Milk Hotel and Sufjan are encouraged to point their browsers toward Mr. Tompkins and his band.
At times I am literally frightened by Andrew Bird's talent.
Since Brad included The.Story.Of's new album, I'll include his honorable mentions: Arcade Fire's Neon Bible
(I agree with this one, at least for the music and arrangements), The New Pornographers' Challengers
, and Tegan and Sara's The Con
. So there you go.
Roger Ebert calls it a masterpiece, Rotten Tomatoes has it rated at around 98%, and I call it the best movie I have seen in years. Beautifully filmed, supremely acted, and emotionally scarring, with elements of black comedy and a pantheon-level villain makes Country one for the ages. I saw this in London with about three other people, at a theater that served drinks (full bar), and barely took a sip of my gin and tonic, I was so engrossed. Some don't like the ending since it doesn't tie up nicely: don't be stupid. If there is any justice, it will sweep the Oscars, leaving Juno with an air-compressor-induced hole in its forehead. (UPDATE: It pretty much did.)
9a. The backlash against Autotuning
The single greatest scourge against music today, Antares' Autotune, is finally receiving the attention and rejection that it deserves. If you don't know, most pop music nowadays uses software to "autotune" hack singers who look good but can't carry a tune in a bucket so that listeners won't want to tear their ears off with cheese graters when they sing.
Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy
, has a wonderful column about how the real damage resulting from the steroid problem in baseball is not the death of hallowed records and subsequent inability to compare players from different eras, but the destruction of the memories we have about the greatest achievements of the past and a reluctance to trust what our eyes see in the future. Same thing here. Is that soaring vocal that moves your soul talent, or is it an associate engineer with a quick mouse? Additional love goes out to all those hack producers who would rather have a crappy drummer edited together rather than find someone that can keep a freakin' beat.
9b. The end of the loudness wars
Another trend that is finally dying: mainstream music media is finally waking up to the fact that albums that are "slammed" (compressed and limited so badly that there are no dynamics, ostensibly to make them louder and thus more noticeable when played on the radio) sound terrible and fatigue listeners. I won't say much more -- there are tons of articles out there talking about this phenomenon, and Rolling Stone finally published an article about it, if you're interested. But the solution is obvious: doesn't your iPod or stereo have a volume knob on it? Let's have the dynamics back in our music!
I need to get out more, but here's my personally-experienced picks for 2007:
1. Best Live Acts I Heard
And the winners are: Alice Cooper
(Verizon, Houston), The Police
(Toyota Center, Houston), Blue Öyster Cult
(Scout Bar, Houston-area). Alice Cooper still has all his artistic savvy and sarcasm intact, performing in raw and theatrical excellence on tour. The Police reunion tour was a rare, nostalgic venture back into their reggae-soaked repertoire. Hearing Blue Öyster Cult at such a small venue was about as awesome as an old Cultophile could ask for.
2. Best Albums I Purchased
Though I've been backtracking on older, essential rock albums for years, I did pickup a few 2007 discs: Alice Cooper (Dirty Diamonds)
, Chevelle (Vena Sera)
, & Rush (Snakes & Arrows)
. Especially like "Woman Of Mass Destruction" and "Perfect" on Alice's new CD. Chevelle? Well, you either love 'em or hate 'em. Their latest is more of the same, just fine-tuned ever so slightly from previous albums. The Rush legacy returned with a vengeance, and this one might even slightly rumble the Grammy Richter-scale this year. (UPDATE:
Well, it was worth hoping for, anyway.)
3. Best Albums I Reviewed
Of the several albums I reviewed in 2007: dUg Pinnick (Strum Sum Up)
& 1000 Miles From Home (Collusion)
. Pinnick's latest solo venture away from King's X was quite interesting and thoroughly bombastic. I was also quite impressed with 1000 Miles From Home, a Dallas-based group with considerable potential.
4. Best Movie I Saw
Really enjoyed Anthony Hopkins' character in Fracture
, along with the unusual plot twists. Johnny Depp's comedic take on the now-famous Captain Sparrow was redeployed in adventurous fashion in the multi-sequeled Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End
5. Best TV Series I Watched
I'm a big fan of Lost
, the most intriguing and drawn-out mystery ever foisted upon the American public. I also give due credit to House
, in successfully rolling forward its plot direction with continuing bad-bedside-manner sarcasm.
Writing about music, for the most part, is a pretty fantastic gig. As I get older, though, I sometimes fear that I might one day lose touch with what new and noteworthy stuff penetrates the Internet airwaves. While writing keeps me on my toes, it also overwhelms my senses and sometimes prevents me from keeping up with bands that I really like. I spend most of my days listening to albums that aren't bad -- in fact, they're pretty okay -- but that aren't exactly making waves, either.
2007 probably had tens of hundreds of incredible albums full of gorgeous rhythms and bold originality. I, sadly, only had the time to gather a dozen or so throughout the year and enjoy them during the lulls.
These are the 10 albums that kept me coming back for more. They are listed below in no particular order...it's just how they sprang to mind.
Daniel Snaith is such an interesting musician. Academically trained in Mathematics, Snaith seems to be one of those musicians that have managed to marry his creative side with his analytical side to create music that is calculated and gorgeous. His voice is really overwhelming, and the songs off of Andorra are deliciously ambient and melodic -- "Melody Day" is by far my favorite track. The songs feel like they've been deconstructed and then patched back together with purpose. Each piece conjures up colors in your head as you listen. Intense shades of blue, green, red, and purple dance around in your mind as the notes meander down a path of shoegazing wonderment. It's a remarkable album and perfect for lazy afternoons filled with daydreams.
It should be no surprise to anyone that Rilo Kiley made it on this list. A large part of my musical heart has been dedicated to this band since the first time I heard them so many years ago. For a short time, RK called the Omaha, Nebraska, label Saddle Creek their home, but they've apparently gone on to sign directly with Warner Bros. I was worried this transition would greatly affect their sound, but for the most part it's only gotten better. One of the things I love so much about RK is their ability to play around with a lot of different types of music. Under the Blacklight is full of quirky characters and absurd stories about love, desire, and taboo. The songs feel like a combination of indie-pop and disco with a little country twang. Jenny Lewis' voice has really matured over the years, and they have just grown tremendously as a band. I hope they keep up the momentum.
The first time I heard PJ Harvey was back in like 1992. Someone made me a tape of her album Dry, and I remember feeling really overwhelmed by the songs. I was a freshman in high school and was finally being exposed to stuff that wasn't Depeche Mode or The Cure. Rid of Me soon followed, and I've kept that gem of a record on Play ever since it came out. It was a weird album; it was loud and brash and manic. It honestly scared me, but it made me feel alive. I have to say, though, that everything she did after that (which was four albums' worth) I wasn't feeling, and I sort of lost touch with her work as a result. I stumbled across White Chalk by accident, and it made my year. The old PJ is back, and the music sounds bigger and better. It's a much more mature album; simply arranged, with not much more than her voice and a piano. And interestingly, she hadn't had much experience with a piano until this album. That newness probably contributed to the album's organic feel. It sounds like she's more comfortable in her skin and in her voice, because the songs are a nice combination of seductive eeriness and a new and improved vocal range.
I found out about Great Northern through a writing gig, and I'm glad I did. I have a feeling these guys are going to be blowing up sooner rather than later. Their album Trading Twilight for Daylight is just a really great indie-pop album. The band makes songs that get stuck in your head and comfort you when you feel like being melancholy (yes, melancholy, not emo!) It's got your standard indie band setup, complete with keyboards and soft, gentle vocals. One of my favorite songs on the album, "Home," has apparently been featured in a Nissan commercial that aired during the Superbowl. Interesting, eh?
I hate when there are great bands out in the universe that I don't know about. I feel like an idiot when I finally do discover them and have to kick myself for not knowing about 'em sooner. Such is the case with Art in Manila. I was hit over the head with these guys at the Rilo Kiley show back in November; I was instantly drawn. The songs were the perfect blend of rock and pop and felt really reminiscent of bands I loved in the '90s. There was something that felt familiar and comfortable about them, as well, and I soon found out why. After some quick Internet investigative research, I realized that one of the members is Orenda Fink of Azure Ray, one of those lovely, gentle pop bands that had low and lazy music that accompanied their voices remarkably well. Fink's contribution to AiM is equally as addictive and Set the Woods on Fire is by far one of the best albums to come out in years.
Au Revoir Simone is a trio of lovely ladies that make music with the use of not much more than a few keyboards and their voices. One has to wonder how much depth and texture songs can have when all they consist of is three keyboards and some vocals -- bands like this who don't incorporate more traditional instrumentation (like guitars) run the risk of making music that's flat and uninspired. I don't know how they pulled it off, but Au Revoir Simone transformed their new album, The Bird of Music, into a musical masterpiece for the ears. The songs have real personality, and the melodies are perfectly executed. Their finely tuned harmony and supple vocals make songs like "The Lucky One" and "Stay Golden" feel serene and comfortable. An even bigger plus is the fact that the album translates flawlessly in a live setting. It's a real treat to see them execute these musical treasures in person.
I'm not sure how many people have heard Magnet's albums, but if you haven't I'd highly recommend checking out his stuff. I learned about him a few years ago when he put out On Your Side; I liked the music, but got so caught up in other stuff that I kinda forgot about him. That was until I received his latest release, Simple Life. It's an imaginative and whimsical album full of songs about the people you love and the memories you make together. I love indie musicians who incorporate instruments like the banjo and harmonica into their music; that sort of indie take on folk sounds can be lovely to hear. I know it's kind of prosaic, but when it's done honestly and is woven within a song to compliment its lyrical poetry, it can be really endearing. And that is exactly what Simple Life is -- endearing and emotional without being pretentious or clichéd.
When one thinks about bands that make ambient indie rock fury, their mind probably doesn't immediately, or ever, take bands from Houston into consideration. This is all about to change, my friends. There are a handful of incredibly talented indie bands in this town, and they are making major strides to get their music out to the masses. Motion Turns It On is one of those bands, and their independently produced EP Rima is a stunning first release. The songs vibrate with ferocious harmony and highlight the immense talent of their creators. Rima is loud and oscillating in all the right places and is accompanied by harmonies of quiet beauty that create perfect balance.
I'm beginning to believe that one of the main reasons I am drawn to certain albums is because of vocals that are dreamy and soft -- just like Sam Beam's. He has a voice made for singing lullabies that can charm even the crankiest of babies. The Shepherd's Dog is really reminiscent of Beam's earlier works, with his languid voice framed by simple guitar strums and up-tempo handclaps. "Boy with a Coin" is the perfect blend of creamy vocals and folk rhythms. Beam's voice echoes like a train in the distance, and the lyrics are somber poetry that invoke almost cartoon-like images as you get lost in the words. "The Devil Never Sleeps" has lyrics that read like a modern blues/country song but are set to almost vaudeville-like piano strokes. Beam's lyrical poetry is really inspiring, and his method of bringing out these stories with low-key instrumentation and his distinctive voice makes The Shepherd's Dog a must have.
I love female artists that just put all their ideas right out there. It doesn't matter if you like it or not -- they have a talent and a vision, and it's like they have no choice but to approach their craft with reckless abandon. M.I.A. is like that. I remember seeing random soundbites of her on MTV maybe a couple of years ago, and since it was on MTV, I chose not to pay her much mind. (Yeah, I know that's kind of dumb, but I've grown a lot over the years -- so gimme a break!) After her performance at this year's ACL Festival, though, I knew Kala was an album I had to own. Her sound is a strange and unique blend of infectious grooves. It's like rap circa the Beastie Boys combined with dance beats and mixed with deft precision. Kala is a fun and chill album that pushes the boundaries of hip-hop and makes you think twice about what you thought you knew about good music. END