First, a terminological note.
It's a curious phenomenon that some people use the word "album" to refer to LPs - as in, "I never listen to my albums any more - I only listen to CDs or my iPod." An "album" is, of course, merely a collection of (in this case) songs, not a format for that collection.
I'm reverting to the term album here - because the term I've used since I started doing these tops lists ("CD") no longer makes sense. A good portion of the titles listed below did not enter my collection as CDs...and one or two exist only as digital albums. So "album" it is.
Anyway: it seemed to me, from the very beginning of the year, that this was likely to be a strong year for music. That's primarily an artifact of a lot of bands I like releasing music this year (good music), but there were also pretty decent albums from bands I wouldn't have expected them from (as well as a few disappointments). So this year's list goes pretty deep...and even beyond the list here, there are plenty of fine albums. Maybe I'll feel different in ten years - but as part of this year-end thingy, I also went through the past eleven years of my tops lists and collated them...and it was surprising to see albums crop up on those lists that I don't think are all that great anymore - and, in some cases, that I didn't think were all that great at the time. (More on that in a future post.)
This year is also probably the last year in which CDs as such will dominate. Even there, that fact needs an asterisk: a lot of these top CDs were music I purchased from eMusic and then burned to a physical CD, primarily because it's easier to listen to music on CD in the car and on the home stereo. (In both cases, though, CD-Rs full of mp3s are playable...and a couple-few albums listed here exist only as part of a CD-R.) Next year, though, I plan on buying a large hard drive dedicated primarily to music, including backup of most of my existing music collection. More of my listening will take place on my computer than ever before, and given iTunes' ability to organize collections of songs into playlists (i.e., virtual albums), and given the extensive storage space, most music that I acquire in data format will never make it onto a CD of any sort. We'll see how that changes things. I still think the album as an organizing principle has merit (in the latest issue of Wired, David Byrne interviews Thom Yorke, and that question is one they take up).
Enough preamble - start listing.
The Caribbean Populations
The Fiery Furnaces Widow City
Future Clouds and Radar s/t
The National Boxer
The New Pornographers Challengers
Spoon Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Both Spoon and the New Pornographers have put out four excellent albums in a row, and both acts seem to be slightly victims of the sort of backlash that says, wait, we can't keep naming the same bands to these lists year after year. Well, we can if they keep putting out such excellent music. Some folks didn't care as much for Challengers, as rather than sporting six or seven deathless hooks per song, the band's cut back to only two or three - and some songs actually slow down to breathing pace.
No one else seems to recognize the excellence of the Caribbean - probably because what they do is pretty subtle. If you're not listening closely, the songs might sound like pleasant background noise...and occasionally, Michael Kentoff's voice even strikes a somewhat Gibbardian tone. But the details - of composition, of arrangement, of lyrics - are far subtler than background music, and the songs tend to get better the more you listen to them. If I were to do a list of the top albums of previous years, almost everything by the Caribbean would end up more highly placed than it originally did.
And the Fiery Furnaces are beginning to live up to the potential demonstrated by their earlier work. The secret weapon this time is they've let their rhythm section breathe...and one way they've done that is by letting some ass-kicking '70s-style rock into the mix. No shit: one of the most cerebral bands around is now punching out Led Zeppelin-style riffs. Listen to "Navy Nurse" for proof. And Eleanor Friedberger is the band's not-so-secret weapon: she somehow takes brother Matthew's elaborately lengthy lines and recondite vocabulary and makes them sing - more than sing, groove. Not to kick Sasha Frere-Jones around any more - but to my ears, the way the Fiery Furnaces deliver lyrics would be impossible without the influence of hip-hop.
I'm not ranking each album individually, only in groups...but if I were ranking them, I'd be tempted to place the Future Clouds and Radar release at the very top. One measure of that: when putting together the mix of tracks from my top 20 albums this year, this album was damned near impossible for me to narrow down to a single, representative track. And as Paula pointed out, it takes sheer chutzpah to debut with a sprawling, double-disc set. Robert Harrison, formerly head of high-end power-poppers Cotton Mather, transcends genre limitations here. Okay, if you like a real tight, defined album with clear stylistic markers, you won't like this. But you should really just relax.
Charlotte Hatherley The Deep Blue
Kristin Hersh Learn to Sing Like a Star
Low Drums and Guns
Maximo Park Our Earthly Pleasures
Of Montreal Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
St. Vincent Marry Me
John Vanderslice Emerald City
How strong a year was it? We're down to number 14 here...and to my ears, any one of these albums could have been a number one - and in previous years, might well have been number one.
Caribou's Dan Snaith takes a right turn and wins: focusing more strongly on songs and vocals than his previous more instrumental, experimental approach, Andorra delivers an album top-loaded with brilliant psychedelic pop songs. It gets a bit weirder and more abstract as it goes on.
Charlotte Hatherley's second full-length album begins with a swirly, keyboard-led instrumental - a gutsy move for someone whose first album was primarily notable for Hatherley's guitar-playing and winning vocal melodies. Although the rest of the album adds to her previously established songwriting and playing strengths, the diversity and range on display here make me really curious where she's going to go next time. She and Andy Partridge are mutual fans: she might just eventually reach his level as songwriter.
Kristin Hersh's album again combines the intensity and focus of her solo work with the power of her band work, only this time the songs and performance are even better than on her last, fine solo album Sunny Border Blue. Meanwhile, Low continues to evolve from its "slowest band in the world" tag, incorporating more electronics and an increasingly dark emotional range. Maximo Park's second album is a grower: not quite as impressive off the bat as their debut. Of Montreal's album was somewhat overlooked in year-end polls (probably because it came out so early in the year...and had been leaked in fall of 2006), but it's still an emotionally powerful and musically assured and wide-ranging album. John Vanderslice continues his string of excellent albums and character studies, this one being perhaps a bit more personal.
And watch out for St. Vincent: Annie Clark (who basically is the band) wrote and performed nearly everything on this album, and sometimes it's hard to believe it's the same artist so diverse are the approaches and arrangements. Actually, if the whole album had been up to the quality of its best tracks, this would have been in the top tier: she's actually too diverse, and some of her experiments don't quite work. But she's still incredibly young, and this is her debut.
Field Music Tones of Town
The Hidden Messages Animal Actors 1 and 2
Interpol Our Love to Admire
Paul McCartney Memory Almost Full
Radiohead In Rainbows
Von Südenfed Tromatic Reflexxions
Interpol slips a little bit: still a good album, but the arrangements and song structures aren't quite as inventive, and they're going to need to diversify their sound a bit, I think. Radiohead is one band that's definitely done that in the past; here the changes are a bit more subtle, the two most notable being an increasing use of orchestration (by Jonny Greenwood) and acoustic instrumentation. Field Music has a very fresh sound that mixes in almost Gentle Giant-like prog touches (odd meters and harmonies, the occasional jerky rhythm) with classic British-style pop, but with a touch both light and quirkily energetic. The biggest surprise here is Paul McCartney: you can thank the internets for this one's presence here, as I would otherwise have long since given up on McCartney's relevance - but he and his new, highly caffeinated label streamed the track "Ever Present Past," and I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of excessive production polish and the engagement and creativity of the arrangement. The rest of the album is nearly as good, and suggests that it's always dangerous to utterly write off the old guys: it's possible to remain relevant, even to keep your ears to the ground and not come off like a trend-chasing codger. Speaking of the aged, while the actual album released this year by The Fall (Reformation Post T.L.C.) was a bit disappointing, Mark E. Smith's collaboration with the two Mouse on Mars guys under the name Von Südenfed is much better. He seems engaged and challenged by the music, whereas the official Fall seems a bit too professional. Of course, Von Südenfed really is The Fall: MES famously stated in an interview that "if it's me and your granny on bongos, it's The Fall"; therefore Von Südenfed is The Fall. (No one's granny plays bongos, however.)
Finally, pleasant surprise number two: out of nowhere (specifically, somewhere in England and my inbox, respectively), the Hidden Messages blew me over with something that's either two EPs with nearly the same title or a single album in two parts. I'm calling it the latter, just so it qualifies for these lists (no EPs, no compilations, no live albums unless mostly new material). I don't care if this hasn't officially been released yet - it's among the best music I heard this year, so it's making my top 20 list regardless of what format it's in or whether it's generally available.
HONORABLE MENTIONS, TIER ONE:
Anton Barbeau and Su Jordan The Automatic Door; The Besnard Lakes The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse; Division Day Beartrap Island; Mitch Easter Dynamico; His Name Is Alive Xmmer; The Mitchells Slow Gears; Robert Pollard Coast to Coast Carpet of Love.
HONORABLE MENTIONS, TIER TWO:
Githead Art Pop; Brad Laner Neighbor Singing; LCD Soundsystem Sound of Silver; Ted Leo & the Pharmacists Living with the Living; Robert Pollard Standard Gargoyle Decisions; Tegan and Sara The Con; Wilco Sky Blue Sky.
HONORABLE MENTIONS, TIER THREE:
Andrew Bird Armchair Apocrypha; Imperial Teen The Hair The TV The Baby and The Band; Joe Henry Civilians; Knit Delicate Pressed; Liars s/t; Maritime Heresy and the Hotel Choir; Mary Timony Band The Shapes We Make; The Ponys Turn the Lights Out; Saul Williams The Rise and Inevitable Liberation of Niggy Tardust; The Shins Wincing the Night Away; Testa Rosa s/t.
SOME GOOD EPs:
Ghosty No Nothing; Of Montreal Icons, Abstract Thee; Robert Pollard Silverfish Trivia; Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 Sex, Food, Death...and Tarantulas; Wire Read & Burn 03.
THE LOCAL ZONE:
I confess that between late hours and our state's insistence on permitting idiots to blow foul-smelling, toxic fumes into my lungs and all over my clothing and hair, I rarely get out to hear local bands any more...and I haven't gone out of my way to hear local recordings, either. That said, a number of Milwaukee acts put out good music in 2007: of the ones I've heard, here's a list, ranked approximately:
Maritime Heresy and the Hotel Choir
Knit Delicate Pressed
Testa Rosa s/t
Fever Marlene Civil Wars
Call Me Lightning Soft Skeletons
THE OVERRATED ZONE:
The main entry on this list? Arcade Fire's Neon Bible. It's not a bad album by any means...but to my ears it's just nowhere near as good as almost everything listed above. Its chief flaw is this: its ambition isn't merited by the quality of its songs. Specifically, the grander the instrumentation (pipe organ, orchestra, choir), the harder it is to avoid having that grandeur overwhelm the song. When the imbalance is particularly extreme, the result is sheer comedy (as Frank Zappa knew, playing "Louie Louie" on the monstrous Albert Hall pipe organ...). Neither the melodies, the chords, the structure, nor the lyrics of any song on Neon Bible can stand up to that sort of arrangement...and when the band piles on orchestra and choir and pipe organ, well...it isn't quite "Louie Louie" but it starts to come close. The corollary of this notion, by the way, is that the easier it is to "justify" an arrangement, the harder it is to make a song powerful enough to stand out in that arrangement. That is (as Radiohead said), anyone can play guitar: no one thinks it odd when Joe Shmoe picks up an acoustic guitar at open-mic night at the corner coffeehouse. (They would think it odd if Joe Shmoe walked onstage followed by a fifty-piece choir.) However, Joe Shmoe has to be a very good songwriter and performer for his simple acoustic-guitar music to stand out, to not blend into the background with all the other acoustic-guitar-slinging singer-songwriters.
The other main album on the overrated list, for me, is Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before He Could Finish Typing the Really Long Title. Again: not a terrible album...but the two things that sink this one (do you see what I just did there?) are: Isaac Brock's increasingly annoying and mannered "singing" (yelping, gesticulating, shouting, grimacing, bellowing, barking, muttering, etc.), and Johnny Marr's ongoing "I Am the Invisible Guitarist" act. That last isn't necessarily a problem as such...but it's rather astonishing that the man whose playing on the first few Smiths albums was so clever, concise, and distinctive has spent the last twenty years disappearing onto other people's albums nearly as anonymously as any studio hack.
Next entry: the tracklisting for my year-end mix drawn from my top 20 albums.