Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Top 10 Albums of 2007: If Only Justin Timberlake Had Released Something

[Editor's Note: I intend for this to be the first in a series of "Wrapping Up 2007" columns. Whether I get around to more of these or get sidetracked by "Classic Albums" on VH1 Classic is completely up to the gods, and I accept no culpability in the matter.]

[Editor's Note 2: Was the title of this column a gratuitous ploy to include a picture of Justin Timberlake, whose album, unfortunately, came out last year? Yes.]

With a repulsive deluge of “year-in-review” columns pouring through my mail slot (not a metaphor), I have but two options: acquiesce or differ. Notably, SPIN magazine named Kanye West’s “Stronger” collaboration with French electro-heroes Daft Punk 2007’s best song, and named West and Daft Punkers Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo the top performers of these almost-bygone 365 days. The myriad difficulties with these exaltations are somewhat elusive, inasmuch as Kanye and Daft Punk are adept producers and songsmiths, and there is nothing ostensibly violative about either the original “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” or Kanye’s hook-heavy seasoning. Beneath the still waters, however, are issues with the track (the beats are light, there is no climax, it’s perplexingly repetitive), and, moreover, with SPIN aggrandizing it above every other 2007 offering.

Since this is merely a bitter prelude to my own top-10 posturing, and not an exposition on nefarious pop journalism, I will name but two of my issues with SPIN’s “Stronger” celebration (the rest will be available henceforth by conversation only): first, it’s not the best song on Kanye’s “Graduation.” In fact, it straggles miles behind “Good Life” and some of Kanye’s more vintage hip-hop cuts. Second, it’s not the best song of the year. The National’s “Fake Empire,” SPIN’s fifth-best number, outclasses “Stronger” in virtually every melodic and rhythmic capacity (if you haven’t heard it, and you’re equipped to donate two hours to cycling “Fake Empire” in a fit of autoerotic revelry, alight on Even Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” ranked nineteenth, is more significant, and will be remembered 10 years hence. “Stronger” will not—it’s too forgettable and ephemeral to be the best song of the year.

For my own sanity—and for the sake of some deserving metaphysical cause—here are my top 10 albums of the year.

10 Amy Winehouse: Back to Black

Of all the multifarious good fortune I’ve been lucky enough to channel this year, perhaps the most fortuitous piece was discovering this album just before the rest of the world heard “Rehab,” cemented Winehouse’s beehive hairdo on every magazine cover, and followed her drug addiction in so obsessive a manner as to make Lindsay Lohan look downright anonymous. I listened with no premonition of her forthcoming celebrity or the blotto fascination that derailed her career immediately afterwards. What I found were a bunch of gems; “Rehab,” obviously, but also the regal R&B of “He Can Only Hold Her” and “Some Unholy War,” a cross-pollination of a Biggie Smalls gansta backdrop and a Bob Marley lament.

9 Infected Mushroom: Vicious Delicious

By far (and as can be expected from these Israeli stalwarts), the year’s best trance album. The explosive build and final two minutes of “Eat it Raw” is perfectly percussive and delightfully violent, and the unwelcome lyrics on some songs are outweighed by the visceral, straight-ahead techno that Infected has helped establish as the defining element of Goa Trance. With Jaffa Oranges and ecstasy, Israel’s finest exports.

8 Of Montreal: Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

With all due respect to the work’s titular question, this album—or anything associated with it—is far from the destroyer. In fact, Of Montreal prove once again to be indie music’s most un-indie band, with genuinely layered and nuanced tracks that put to shame the inchoate mess that is most of its competition. “Hissing Fauna” scores the mystification quad-fecta, with the year’s most mystifying album title (which fauna are we talking about, and why is it hissing? Does fauna hiss?), most mystifying band name (they’re from Athens, Georgia), most mystifying song name (“Sink the Seine”…um, isn’t it already a river?), and most mystifying existential statement housed within a track title (“The Past is a Grotesque Animal”). Confusing and comforting all at the same time, “Hissing Fauna” marries Williamsburg panache to Staten Island rent prices.

7 Chrisette Michele: I Am

Okay, so I’m biased. I interviewed Michele in June, just before her album came out, and I was taken by her voice, do-gooder ethos, and psychic propensity for channeling Billie Holiday. I was put off by her abstinence, temperance, and un-potty mouth, but she made me emote in three ways that I never have during an interview:

A) About halfway through our sit-down, I said, “Goddamn it, I love my mom!”
B) Two minutes later, I observed, “Well, I guess I’m going to kill myself.”
C) With my last question, I looked her dead in the eyes and asked, “Would you say that your macaroni and cheese analogy extends to other areas of your life?”

(You can click here to check out my story for the now-defunct Inside Connection magazine.)

6 The Bad Plus: PROG

It may strike you as ironic, considering their name, but the Bad Plus has achieved a veritable collective of “bests”—best jazz/rock piano trio, best post-Nirvana version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and best example of an aggressive, stylistically ambiguous, between-genres band done good on a mainstream-sounding project. “PROG,” as the name implies, is a progressive romp through a grab bag of covers and originals. It leads off with an inspired iteration of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and then mimics Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and David Bowie’s cult classic, “Life on Mars” (unlike Bowie, the Bad Plus don't phrase "Life on Mars?" in the form of a question). “PROG” is not the group’s best effort—that honor is reserved for “Give”—but hey, it’s better than Kanye West and Daft Punk.

5 Dr. Dog: We All Belong

Dr. Dog wins the award for “Most under-the-radar Beach Boys and Beatles sound-alike from Philadelphia with soothing, pithy songs and engaging album artwork.” Their latest studio effort clocks in at a compact 38 minutes, with jaunty head-boppers like “The Girl” that evoke a base, juvenile glee. What’s more, lead singer Scott McMicken is exceedingly polite, and really gave it to the man by holding out on an iPod until he got one for free after playing a show at the Apple Store in Chicago. ¡Viva La Revolucion!

4 Arcade Fire: Neon Bible

They’re loud, they’re over-the-top, they’re melodramatic, but they’re also touching, wrenching, and uber-talented multi-instrumentalists. Canada’s Favorite Sons follow up “Funeral,” their roaring debut, with an equally tonal and maudlin haranguing of suburan ennui and parental oppression. “Neon Bible” would have ranked higher if the Arcade Fire didn’t prove such willing darlings of the SPIN and Blender media machine, but would have ranked lower if that sharing-the-self attitude didn’t also manifest in their riveting, balls-out live performances. So I guess they’re right where they should be. Now, if we could only do something about Win Butler's hair.

3 Sigur Ros: Hvarf-Heim

Never mind that the album name evokes a Nazi bark, nor that its translation (Haven-Home) is uncharacteristically innocuous and sterile for these ethereal Nordic shoegazers. Just know two things: Sigur Ros is now classified as “Post-Rock,” which is way badass, and they sing in “Hopelandic,” a fake take-off of Icelandic whose words mean nothing. As if all that rhetorical rebellion weren’t enough, Sigur Ros inhabits the rarified sonic territory of Radiohead and Pink Floyd—eastern hemisphere titans who deliver the airy, psychedelic goods.

2 Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: Raising Sand

In 2007’s most fruitful and intriguing collaboration (hear that, Kanye and Modest Mouse?), country belle Krauss and Led Zeppelin frontman Plant deliver a tasteful alt-country masterpiece that proves that, a) hot chicks always do it better, and b) Plant is the most versatile singer in the history of hard rock. Although the two trade lead vocal duties throughout, their 13 utterly transporting selections shine brightest with Krauss at the fore, whining and pining like a homesick goddess while Plant forsakes his trademarked Zeppelin squeal for raspy, understated harmonies. "Through the Morning, Through the Night" finds Krauss in a bed of would-be Grateful Dead harmonies; think of her singing the choruses on "Brokedown Palace." The lonesome “Please Read the Letter” is cutting and melodious, slowing, for a bit, snail mail’s rapid demise.

1 LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver

The One. Not just number one, but the transcendent recording that changes how you think about music, impacts your iTunes (or illegal European downloading site) purchasing habits, and vindicates an otherwise mediocre lap around the calendar. 2007’s “Futuresex/Lovesounds,” James Murphy’s second release as LCD Soundsystem is a catchy mash-up of disco spew and faux-adolescent angst, the brilliant convergence of tunefulness, technology, and social commentary. Not only is “Get Innocuous!” the year’s best song, but “North American Scum” and “Someone Great” prove worthy competition for the crown.

In an altogether dishonest era—both musically and otherwise—Murphy waxes axiomatic with Mick Jagger-like realism, reminding us that we don't always want what we want. “Sound of silver,” he drones in the title track, “makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you remember the feelings of a real life emotion of teenager. Then you think again.”

James Murphy makes me stronger.

Stay Seminal, Sound of Silver
MC Music in Review

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