Here’s a roundup of my favorite musical moments and a couple disappointments from 2012, originally written for WNYC’s Soundcheck.
It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, and I’ve already listened to 100 Christmas songs — all by Sufjan Stevens. To some this may sound great. To far more, this may sound tortuous. And to think, for a time there, I wasn’t totally sure we’d get more songs from Sufjan Stevens.
Back when Stevens released his Illinois album in 2005, I, like many, geekily hoped he would make good on his plan to do a record for each of the 50 states. It was fun to imagine what state might be next to get the Sufjan treatment (“Maybe it’ll be Kansas next!,” I may have actually thought). But deep down, I think we all scratched our heads over how such an ambitious project would even be logistically possible.
It wasn’t. Stevens more or less dropped out of the scene after that, worked on his cinematic symphonic work, The BQE, and pondered out loud that he wasn’t so sure he wanted to write “songs” anymore. Stevens eventually did resurface obviously with 2010’s EP, All Delighted People and its immediate follow-up, the radical and majestic masterpiece Age Of Adz, but not before quashing any remaining hope of another states album, admitting that the whole idea was just a “promotional gimmick.”
So while the Fifty States Project never actually materialized, Stevens was indeed busy in those five years. It turns out, he’d been quietly plugging away at writing and recording more Christmas songs. A lot of them.
As you might recall, Stevens first released 2006’s Songs For Christmas, a sprawling 42-song, 5-disc set of Christmas-themed EPs, initially created for his family and friends each year from 2001-2005. Mixing gorgeous original works with re-arranged Christian traditionals — like his stunning banjo and piano rendition of “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing” — that idiosyncratic and fun treasure trove rejuvenated a somewhat tired Christmas canon with vibrancy, spiritual reverence, and conflicted feelings about the over-commercialization of the holiday.
Now, six years later, Sufjan Stevens has unloaded Silver & Gold, a whopping 58-song follow-up recorded between 2006 to 2010. For those that purchased this new box set, the collection contains a huge 80-page booklet, stickers and temporary tattoos, and one of those fold-it-yourself paper ornaments. Oh yeah, and five discs of original songs and faithful and odd interpretations of traditional holiday fare that rolls through a variety of styles: choral pieces, ramshackle jingles, instrumental interludes, weirdo genre exercises and under-developed sketches.
Each disc is more or less split up thematically, and each has its own distinct personality. The first and fourth EPs, Gloria and Let It Snow, feel the most traditional, with the biggest concentration of straight ahead buoyant takes on familiar jingles and carols. But each successive entry — I Am Santa’s Helper, Christmas Infinity Voyage, and Christmas Unicorn — begins to experiment in form and texture, while also looking inward, grappling with what’s important about Christmas.
Perhaps the most interesting and bizarre set is the third EP, Christmas Infinity Voyage, which incorporates the newfound glitched-out 8-bit synths and Auto-tuned vocals Stevens has developed recently. On Christmas standards we’ve heard for years, like “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” or “Joy To The World,” it remarkably works, as bits of noise, static and otherworldly computerized cacophony begin to creep into the corners, only to climax with a reprise the jubilent chorus of “Impossible Soul” from Adz.
And some of the best entries are those that throw away the basic structure, sliding into expansive electronic jams, such as the 15-minute epic “The Child With The Star On His Head” or “Christmas Unicorn,” which peaks with a repeated chant of Joy Divisions “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
In all Silver & Gold is yet another really excellent addition to Stevens’ ever-ballooning Christmas catalog, even if it might not be the most satisfying listen if you set out to play each EP straight through. I Am Santa’s Helper, in particular, has the most inconsistent or undeveloped ideas. Ultimately that’s also the nature of such a project: Even if it doesn’t all succeed, I’m glad someone like Stevens is out there trying and experimenting. Still, buried within these five volumes are plenty of pieces — both playfully heartwarming and dark– that will easily sit alongside your favorite Christmas songs, if not your favorite Sufjan songs.
For an unpredictable artist always searching for something grand, and aspiring to high concept ideas, Sufjan Stevens’ imaginative musical world is, at his best, powerful, moving, and always worth visiting. Here’s hoping there’s more songs to come.
With so much to hear and wrap your mind around, it’s easy to miss out on some of the gems of Silver & Gold. Hear six more of my favorite highlights from the album.
1) “Baracola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree)” (Disc one, track 7)
A melancholy ballad that builds to a cathartic chorus of voices as emotionally satisfying and lovely as anything on this collection.
2) “Mr. Frosty Man” (Disc two, track 13)
A fun, rough and tumble garage-rock banger, all blown speaker fuzz and feedback, it’s as if the Seeds or Velvet Underground decided to sing about about a super-cool bossy snowman.
3) “Angels We Have Heard On High” (Disc three, track 1)
A traditional call-and-response Christmas carol, reworked with new lyrics from Stevens that reference flying saucers and feeling lost amidst the commotion of the holiday, all while tiny bursts of feedback swell underneath the autoharp, banjo and angelic voices.
4) “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (Disc three, track 2)
One of the most inventive re-envisioned songs, this 9-minute, multi-part piece brings in the serrated computer beats, Casio-synth sounds and vocoder, allowing it to easily reside in the middle of Steven’s Age Of Adz universe.
5) “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow” (Disc four, track 7)
A holiday favorite of mine, given a complete re-harmonization, turning this joyful winter tune into a haunting and enrapturing minor-key lament.
6) “Justice Delivers Its Death” (Disc five, track 8)
With the lines “Silver and gold, everyone wishes for it / How do you measure its worth, just by the pleasure it gives here on Earth?” Sufjan’s ponders his place in a world that values wealth and youth in one of the most beautiful songs he’s written in years.
Since the release of Boxer, The National’s brilliant record from 2007, the band has become one of my favorite bands. So when the band’s two nights (Sunday and Monday, May 24 and 25th) at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club sold out in less than 3 minutes, I was a little miffed I couldn’t see them without scalping or pulling some strings. The band even lined up a late show on Sunday as well but that was hard to come by as well.
Turns out the band has been debuting some new songs during their recent tour, which makes me even more pissed at myself for not trying harder to get tickets for these shows. From some videos I’ve found around the web, their new stuff looks to be just as great as the music from Boxer and Alligator, not to mention the phenomenal track from this year’s Dark Was The Night compilation “So Far Around The Bend.”
Watch “Vanderlylle Cry Baby” live from Toronto:
Watch “Runaway” live from Toronto: (or an in-studio performance here.)
Watch “Blood Buzz Ohio” live from Montreal:
Man, so freaking good. Maybe next time.
My yearly disclaimer: This list doesn’t try to out-do any other list out there with my extensive knowledge of obscure choices that no one has heard of… mostly because I rarely have enough time to hear everything. This is just a list of my favorites that I frequently listened to during the last year… anyway, let’s dig in.
Top Albums of 2008:
1) Bon Iver — For Emma, Forever Ago
I got an early copy this album around this time last year (and even included it on my best of 2007 list by mistake) and it is quite a testament to this music that it has rarely left my headphones during the course of the year. The haunting and evocative sounds of Justin Vernon — the creaky, yet warm guitar strums, the soulful and ghostly vocal harmonies and the loose, almost unfinished arrangements — allows this record perhaps the most intimate and personal performance of the year. Songs like “Flume” and “Skinny Love” and “The Wolves (Act I & II) are instant classics. This is perhaps one of the few albums of 2008 that I will still be returning to in ten years time.
2) Thao — We Brave Bee Stings And All
I would imagine I played Thao’s music more than almost any other artist this year, outside of Radiohead’s In Rainbows (which I would almost call this year’s best album of the year, had I not named it that last year). After all this time I have written about Thao countless times here and on NPR, I booked her for a Tiny Desk Concert, I saw her a few times in concert, I pushed her on almost anyone who would listen, and I lived with this record for over 12 months. It’s raw, energetic, and honest and distinctively Thao and no one else. I am glad that people are really starting to pay attention to her music because this strong debut shows much promise for in coming years. Can’t wait to hear the next batch of songs.
3) Sigur RÃ³s — MeÃ° suÃ° Ã eyrum viÃ° spilum endalaust
For some reason, all everyone talked about when it came to this album, was how they didn’t sound depressed and dreary any more. While I agree, this album has a few songs that are as about energetic and joyful as any song Sigur Ros has ever done, I never quite got why everyone thought previous works (especially tracks off Agaetis Byrjun and Takk…) did not have the same celebratory feel. Either way, there is an otherworldly beauty and ethereal quality in all of Sigur Ros’ music, and this album captures that plus an almost tribal feel. When the Jedi finally defeat the Empire in Return of the Jedi, I think the first track, “Gobbledigook” would be an appropriate choice of music to put on when you ask the Ewoks to dance.
4) Fleet Foxes — Fleet Foxes
Sometimes you hear and album for the first time and it reminds you of so many different bands you love that you feel you already know the songs intimately. Such is the case with Fleet Foxes who immediately conjure allusions to Crosby Still & Nash, Neil Young, The Band, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket and the British folk of the late 60s and 70s… and probably much more. But this is not a slight to the band at all; they are able capture the rural country folk, the stunning lilting harmonies and rich ambiance of the past while creating a unique spin to call their own.
5) Gnarls Barkley — The Odd Couple
Forget about those who say this album was a let down because there was no monster hit like “Crazy” here. In fact in some ways, forget about Danger Mouse and Cee Lo’s last album St. Elsewhere completely, because outside that huge freakshow of a hit, it to me falls so much flatter compared to The Odd Couple. With songs that seamlessly fuse Spaghetti Western, spy movie soundtracks, Latin, gospel, hip hop, psychedelia and much more, Gnarls has created a low key and cohesive classic album. Plus their costume still rule.
6) Department of Eagles — In Ear Park
This was a late addition because I only got ahold of this album last month. But in that time, Department of Eagles’ brand of chamber indie rock is incredibly catchy and made a push well into my top ten. This band is the work of Daniel Rossen, who before this band got a chance to get noticed, performed in his other band Grizzly Bear. Much of that same instrumental mentality from Grizzly Bear carries over in this collection of songs, but I think they sound much more comfortable and less fussy. A definite must-listen.
7) Shearwater — Rook
It’s safe to say at this point that Shearwater is no longer simply a spin-off side project from Okkervil River, not that that was even all that debated for most. But Jonathan Meiburg and company’s latest, Rook, is one of the most inspired and original rock albums I’ve heard in a long time. Meiburg’s voice is full and operatic and simply amazing, while the arrangements and songs are inventive and off kilter enough to be interesting while also incredibly emotional. If you have not seen them perform, make sure to check out the wealth of coverage on NPR (including a great Tiny Desk Concert), because these songs take on a whole new personality live.
8) The Walkmen — You & Me
Before this record, I had always dismissed The Walkmen as a band that sounded the same as many other bands I didn’t like. I don’t know if something changed with my tastes or something just clicked with You & Me, but the Walkmen seem to have perfected that boozy, washed out, yet athemic rafters-shaking sound. But its songs like “On the Water” and “Canadian Girl” display a depth of songwriting and more subtle approach perhaps showing that after the band’s long woozy night, they’ve found a delicate moment of clarity.
9) Girl Talk — Feed The Animals
Holy crap, this is the dance music I’ve waited for my entire life and didn’t even know I was waiting for it. I think if more clubs had DJs that mashed up this many songs I love (and many I NEVER thought I’d ever even listen to in the first place), into such a seamless segue of music, I think I would’ve been out on the floor much more often. Half the fun of Gregg Gillis’ music is knowing that he used to be a biomedical engineer before quitting to pursue music, and the other half is spent trying to decipher all the songs and samples he uses to create such a glorious production patchwork.
10) The Lord Dog Bird — The Lord Dog Bird
I think when I first heard this record, I was struck by the intimacy of it. Reportedly recorded on antiquated tape machines alone in a bedroom and it really sounds like a dude laying down take after take of tinny guitars and quiet howling vocals that are just loud enough to be picked up by the crappy microphone and quiet enough not to disturb the neighbors. This album is full of repetitive and intricately interlocking guitar melodies and the occasional thump of a bass drum… and that’s about it. But the songs are dark, meandering and thoroughly satisfying.
11) Beach House — Devotion (read my write up on NPR’s Song of the Day)
12) Sun Kil Moon — April
13) Conor Oberst — Conor Oberst
14) Ghosty — Answers (read my write up on NPR’s Second Stage)
15) Beck — Modern Guilt
Seven Strong Runners Up:
Sam Phillips — Don’t Do Anything
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks — Real Emotional Trash (read my write up on NPR’s Song of the Day)
Okkervil River — The Stand Ins
David Bryne & Brian Eno– Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Nada Surf — Lucky
Portishead — Third
Evangelicals — The Evening Descends (read my write up on NPR’s Song of the Day)
Six Promising Debuts:
Little Joy — Little Joy (read my write up on NPR’s Song of the Day)
Crystal Stilts — Alight of Night
Sera Cahoone — Only As The Day Is Long
School of Seven Bells — Alpinisms
Plants and Animals — Parc Avenue
She & Him — Volume One
Five Disapointments (based on my enjoyment of previous albums):
I know many people have either My Morning Jacket or TV on the Radio in their top albums of the year lists, but there was something about both of those that as a full album just didn’t do it for me. Each definitely have some stand out songs (a couple amazing tracks even), but the overall flow, the overproduction, the muddied direction and cohesiveness of the albums just fell flat compared to previous albums.
My Morning Jacket — Evil Urges
TV on the Radio — Dear Science,
Wolf Parade — At Mount Zoomer
Ryan Adams — Cardinology
Brendan Canning — Something For All Of Us…
Four Honorable Mentions (or things I liked but not amazing):
Black Keys — Attack & Release
Mates of State — Re-Arrange Us
Death Cab for Cutie — Narrow Stairs
These United States — A Picture Of The Three Of Us At The Gate To The Garden Of Eden
Three Jazz Releases Worth Hearing:
Medeski Martin & Wood — Radiolarians 1
Brad Mehldau Trio — Brad Mehldau Trio Live (read my write up on NPR’s Song of the Day)
Dave Holland Sextet — Pass It On
Two Albums I Just Got Around To Listening To (But think I will like once I spend some more time with them):
The Acorn — Glory Hope Mountain
MGMT — Oracular Spectacular
One Band That I Still Just Don’t Get The Appeal:
Well thats it for now. Let us know here what you think. If you have a favourite or feel we’ve left something off…write to us at email@example.com or right here in the blog comments.
So it’s that special time of year. I’m in the process of putting together my Best of 2008 albums list, which really just means going back and re-listening to the albums I’ve heard, digging up the ones I haven’t and pretending that any ranking system I come up with really matters in the first place. (It doesn’t, but still fun.)
I’ve often found it to be difficult to narrow down a list of full albums I truly loved, and sometimes it’s much easier to come up with outstanding tracks peppered throughout. I thought I’d share a couple here in anticipation of the full list… all seem to fit together in the same mood.
One song I keep wanting to hear is “Canadian Girl” from The Walkmen’s latest album You & Me. Before this album, I was never really a fan of The Walkmen, but this album is quite great and very well could be in my top ten when all is said and done.
Here is another performance of yet another song I’ve loved all year: “Out of Reaches” by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks from Real Emotional Trash. Love the guitar solos on this song (even if not pulled off perfectly in this video), and the very singable (for Malkmus) and poppy melodies.
Lastly, here is “See These Bones,” a great lead off track from Nada Surf’s latest album Lucky.
For quite sometime, I’ve kept a list of every concert I’ve attended. Detailing the kind of information that only obsessive music fans would care about: what the venue was, who was the opener, if there were special guests etc. Although its a somewhat unnecessary activity, it really doesn’t take too much time to write some basic info in a book and spreadsheet I put together.
Over the years, the list has accumulated into quite the database of information that can tell me that my first concert was Paul McCartney at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City in 1993 (though I clearly don’t need a computer to remind me of that), or that I’ve seen the jazz-funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood seven times, or that I saw the Ray Brown Trio literally 6 days before Ray Brown himself died.
One thing this list also tells me is who I still HAVE NOT seen in concert. Obviously that would and should be larger than the list of artists I have seen, but I try to narrow it down by those bands and artists who are still actively touring, still together (reunion concerts don’t typically get added to my list), and those still alive (no Beatles dream concert fantasies here).
Here are five artists or bands that I would try VERY hard to see in concert (within reason… I’m not at a position where I’d drop boatloads of cash to fly across the world to see some band).
1) Jon Brion — Known more for his stellar production with artists like Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann and recently even Kanye West, and for his eclectic film scores (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia etc), Jon Brion has become a cult figure in recent years for his weekly vaudevillian live performances at his club Largo in Los Angeles. Brion serves as a one-man band at these shows, playing all the instruments and constructing songs from the ground up with help of looping pedals.
What makes these performances so amazing according to what I’ve read and heard, is that he often takes requests from the audience who call out for cover songs both well-known and obscure. Along with the occasional surprise guest stopping by to play a song or two (Apple, Nickel Creek, Mann have all been known to show up), Brion creates a fantastic atmosphere where people can watch his amazing instrumental and arranging skills, while singing along to Beatles songs at the same time.
2) Paul Simon — A few years back Paul Simon was touring in support of his great, yet underrated album You’re the One, and was stopping by Kansas City. I waffled on whether I should attempt to get tickets to see him (with my dad who is a huge fan of Simon), but ultimately waited too long and it sold out.
While I love the music of Simon and Garfunkel, I was never keen on forking over a crapload of money to see their recent reunion because ultimately that just seemed like the kind of nostalgia-filled singalong I wasn’t interested in witnessing.
His solo shows however, I would LOVE to see because of the depth of material from his early 70’s albums, not to mention Graceland, Rhythm of the Saints and all of that. Since parting ways with Art Garfunkel all those years ago, Simon has always surrounded himself with the industry’s best stage and studio musicians — tapping jazz greats like Michael Brecker, Cyro Baptista, Steve Gadd, among others.
Probably should’ve scalped tickets to that one.
3) Sigur Ros — Of all the recent bands I’ve wanted to see the last few years, Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros always ends up being that intangible “one that got away.” Some of that can be attributed to the mystique of their beautiful, ethereal music, but it could also be because I keep bloody missing them. In 2002, there was a fantastic week where Lawrence Kansas had this perfect storm of bands worth seeing who all happened to be coming through.
If I remember correctly there was Jurassic 5, Charlie Hunter Duo, Bob Schneider, Aimee Mann, and The Flaming Lips opening and backing Beck. AND Sigur Ros, if I recall, the same night as Hunter and Schneider and sandwiched between Mann and the Lips\Beck shows I was already going to. Since I didn’t live in Lawrence at the time, making the trek during the college school week three days in a row was unfeasible sadly and I had to pick and choose…
I don’t regret choosing Mann and the AMAZING Lips\Beck show (which still stands in my top five shows ever list if I ever created one), but when I narrowly missed Sigur Ros again a few years later I was mildly more miffed. The band was playing in Bethesda Maryland, literally the day I moved to Washington DC and it was impossible to score a ticket, let alone find a way to get out there. (That show was webcast on All Songs Considered, which made it that much more painful to have missed it.) After seeing a video of their recent show at MoMA in New York, I was convinced to not to miss them again.
There are countless other artists on my list as well, but surely those are stories for a different day. What are other musical artists or bands you still have not seen?
Welcome to Volume Two of Mixtape Pollution 2008… This is the second disc of a mix I made (and still am burning copies) for this mixtape club I’ve been a part of for the past year.
This collection is more about sound than lyrical themes but when strung together sounds like one long story arc.Â While seemingly diverse in artist and genre, all the songs to me hit a singular cinematic mood throughout and are a bit darker in tone than the first set of songs.
You can read and listen to Volume One here.
1) “A Silhouette Of Doom” by Ennio Morricone
I’ve always been a big fan of genre films: film noir (Double Indemnity), post apocalyptic science fiction (Planet of the Apes, Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Children of Men), zombies (Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later), martial arts (Fists of Fury) and of course the western…specifically the ‘Spaghetti Western’… specifically Sergio Leone.Â
One of the things that makes Leone’s films so great (and there are many reasons, too many to list) is the musical scores of composer Ennio Morricone.Â While he most known for the music in films such as The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and Fistful of Dollars, Morricone also scored other films like The Untouchables, and Cinema Paradisio and countless others.
This lesser known work, “A Silhouette of Doom” from the 1966 film Navajo Joe (starring Burt Reynolds of all people) was later brought back with much more prominence in Quentin Tarrantino’s fantastic genre\exploitation film Kill Bill. The piece, whether you hear it in either of these films or as a stand alone piece, instantly transports you to a very distinct time and place (fictional or not) with its use of thundering timpanis, echoing trombone, and omnious piano notes and dischordant orchestra.Â Simply a stellar piece of music.
2) “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Nina Simone
While Ella, Aretha, Billie and Sarah are among my favourites obviously, but when it comes to jazz and soul singers, for me it all comes down to Nina Simone. There is something about Nina’s dark, gruff and brooding, yet soaring and transcendent voice that seems so real and impassioned. Originally written for Simone, is most known for a rendition by the Animals, but I love this version for its great arranging of strings.
3) “Blue Veins” by The Raconteurs
From the first distant echoes of backward-looped guitars and Jack White’s wailing vocals, this song somehow seemed destined to follow Nina. Compared to the White Stripes, The Raconteurs have never quite lived up to the promise of such a supergroup for me. But with the band in full-on Zeppelin mode, this song shows how to take a dark blues-driven song and modernize it with the touches of pop production.
4) “The Rip” by Portishead
The new Portishead album does a good job of sounding like Portishead, while straying from the ‘trip hop’ sound they practically invented, but had become tiresome after a decade of hearing lesser imitators programmed as mood music in trendy clothing stores. This song actually first caught my ear in a video that Radiohead posted online showing a stripped down version that maintains the intricate arpeggiated chord progression and ghostly melody. When the synth comes in to double the arpeggios, and the drums begin to intensify, this song is solidifies it’s place among the year’s best songs.
5) “Green Grass Of Tunnel” by Mum
Mum is among my favorites when it comes to cinematic electronic music. Its glitchy percussive sounds and swelling instrumentation coupled with a fragile affected voice (reminiscent of Sigur Ros), is tailor made for a ethereal montage in a film.
6) “Teen Love” by Peter Bjorn & John
The rise of Swedish bands has seen high exposure the last few years thanks to bands like The Concretes, Shout Out Louds and naturally Peter Bjorn & John. All share a similar stylistic love of British pop, washes of shoegazey guitars and sweet melodies. This song just screams early 60s British Invasion especially as Peter sings here, channeling John Lennon’s vocal cord tearing turn on songs like “Revolution.”
7) “Gold Sounds” by Pavement
I think that Pavement and Stephen Malkmus, much like Dylan was in the 60s, has been so studied and analyzed to the point of overanalysis. What can be said that hasn’t been yet? His lyrics are ironic, witty, elusive, his delivery sorta lazy and monotone. Perhaps because his influence and reputation was so huge on lo fi indie bands that you hear it everywhere, you sorta forget how great the music is sometimes.
8) “Helpless” by Crosby Stills Nash & Young
A timeless classic that never gets old…even when it’s on the radio a bajillion times. Instantly sets a mood and never falters from that.
9) “Long, Long, Long” by The Beatles
While early on George Harrison’s songs with The Beatles did not seem to hold up compared to the tunes written by Lennon and McCartney, George really came into his own near the end. George initially didn’t have the lyrical gifts of John or the melodic genius of Paul, so his songs sorta paled in comparison (obviously “Taxman,” “Think For Yourself” and a handful of others stand out here and there). But through experimenting with Indian music and finding his way in bluesier influences, George really found a niche and came into his own. “Long Long Long” is one that really hinted at what was to come for Harrison and is one of my favorite lesser known Beatles tunes.
10) “Don’t Do Anything” by Sam Phillips
It’s amazing to read about how far Phillips has come since her early days as a Christian contemporary artist and songwriter. Her last few albums, which I have only come to find in the last couple years, including her latest, are full of great songs and rich production. This is among my favorites for this year.
11) “Weird Sisters” by Sparklehorse
Is it strange to feel warmth and comfort in Mark Linkous’ pain and anguish? But there is a beauty in the depression that can be heard in the dark brooding melodies and, again, inspired production. I have learned a lot as a musician and producer by listening to these records over and over.
12) “Sentimental Heart” by She & Him
Obviously at this point it’s a cliche to say that most actors do not make good musicians. But this is definitely not the case for She & Him which is the collaboration of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, who create a lovely and earnest collection of country-inflected folk songs. Zooey’s voice is good, not great but there is an honesty to it all which allows the project to feel legit.
13) “I’ll Bring The Sun” by Jason Collett
Jason Collett may not be as well known as other members of Broken Social Scene who have gone solo, but his first solo album teams with poppy nuggets and alt-country-ish rock songs. This is one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in a long time… really reminds me of a more power-popish version of New Order’s “Age of Consent.”
14) “Apartment Story” by The National
With that deep and sullen voice and interlocking guitars and drums, The National feels like both a throwback to early 80s post punk and to modern indie rock at the same time. The band can be fast and upbeat and slow, introspective and disaffected, yet I go back to Boxer frequently and always find more to admire in their approach.
15) “He Needs Me” by Shelley Duvall
I have written about this song in the past, from both Altman’s film Popeye and PT Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. This is the Jon Brion-reproduced track from the later film. There is an innocence to this song that is hard to shake…perhaps due to Duvalls role in Popeye and maybe even in The Shining. A great way to end.
This past year I have been part of a mixtape club where each month I get a CD or two of songs, usually from people I don’t know. September is finally my month so while I’m putting the final touches on the physical copy to mail out to people, I thought I would post the songs here as well so people could either listen and find new music, or comment on the mix or the songs if they so choose.
I start with Volume One today.
1) “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” by The Clash
You can’t go wrong opening up any mix with the Clash. I typically prefer the sorta ska\reggae-influenced Clash songs rather than the all out punk numbers, but this song is a perfect melding of both.
2) “This Aching Deal” by The Shocking Pinks
The drummer from New Zealand twee pop band The Brunettes offers an album of 80s inflected, shoegazey songs that recall The Cure and Jesus & Mary Chain.
3) “Genetic Engineering” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
My favourite song from this experimental electronic synth pop band from the 80s. Great syncopation. Synth pop and 80s music gets a lot of crap, but if you find nuggets like these, strip away the production, there are countless fantastic songs to be found.
4) “Belong” by The Fairer Sex
A Lawrence, Kansas band that has a couple guys I was friends with in my high school and college days. This song features some great poppy melodies and great vocal harmonies that recall the best of 60s bands like the Kinks, the Turtles and the Beatles.
5) “Peace Like A River” by Paul Simon
Perhaps because of his ubiquity and consistency over the years, Paul Simon’s solo material is often overlooked and underrated in my opinion, especially when talking about the essential canon. While most might only key onto Graceland and hits like “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,” there are many deeper cuts like this one that show off how Simon’s songwriting skill is perfect. Time to go back and rediscover these songs.
6) “Safety Bricks” by Kevin Drew
As a Broken Social Scene co-founder, Drew doesn’t go too far out of that realm of dreamy folk and rock, but as more and more members leave for their own careers (Feist, Jason Collett, Emily Haines, Amy Millan), its great to hear songs still in this vein.
7) “Dumbo Wins Again” by Ghosty
Another Lawrence and Kansas City band filled with friends from high school and college days. Admittedly, I’ve reviewed them and talked about them a lot, half because I know them, half because they’re really great.
8) “I Lived On a Dirt Road All My Life” by Manitoba
Before Dan Snaith was Caribou, he was Manitoba. But ever since he became Caribou, the things I loved about his music (like this song) have slowly gone away. While Caribou has its moments, this earlier song is full of great drum beats, ambiance and mellow, understated vocals. Manitoba is a far better name too.
9) “Shelter From the Storm” by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan. Iconoclast. Innovator. Outlaw. What else can you say that thousands haven’t said a million times over?
10) “Gagging Order” by Radiohead
This song from an import release from a few years back reveals a personal moment from Thom Yorke that we often don’t see revealed in previous songs. Gives an interesting glimpse into what a Radiohead song sounds like in its infant stages, and alludes to songs we would later hear on last years In Rainbows.
11) “In This Home On Ice” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Clap Your Hands is a band that’s either loved or bug the hell out of people. I typically fall somewhere in the middle, but you cannot deny the sheer awesomeness of this song’s melodies and general rockingness.
12) “Leave It All” by Orenda Fink
Don’t know much about this, but the whole album is just full of fantastic songs, her great voice, and moody production.
13) “On Bedford And Grand” by The Besnard Lakes
This is a band I discovered last year from Montreal and put out one of my favourite albums of the year. I was surprised that they never quite clicked with as many people as I thought they should. A great mix of 70s arena rock, shoegaze, and Beach Boys harmonies.
14) “Ballad Of Big Nothing” by Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith songs. Sure they’re depressing, but man is it can be great to listen to him when you feel as low as this sometimes.
15) “Goin’ To Acapulco” by Jim James and Calexico
As great as Todd Haynes’ film I’m Not There was in my opinion (it has grown on me over the year, from good to masterpiece, the more I think about it), one of the most haunting and memorable scenes was of the Richard Gere old, outlaw version of Dylan. As he wanders through a derelict town and comes across a funeral in the town square, this song, as performed by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Calexico, sings a lamenting eulogy to a time and place long forgotten. An iconic scene set to a great lesser known Dylan tune.
Stay tuned for Volume Two later this week.
My top nine albums/music of the year. I would have picked ten, but most everything else was background noise and singles to me in comparison to the following. Any year that Radiohead puts out an album is a great year in music, in my opinion, but there was a ton of great music to flesh out the year. And we also saw the cracks appear in the RIAA, with the demise of DRM coming our way. Cheers to 2007!
Radiohead, In Rainbows: Despite all the business shiite surrounding this album, there is no denying that the music is absolutely supurb with several moments of perfection. Lots and lots and lots of Thom Yorke falsetto on display here, with plenty of the classic Radiohead organic electro pulses and textures that we love. If you haven’t checked them out, take a peek at the webcast concerts Radiohead did from their studio shortly after the album was released. Not only are the performances great, but the videos have a strange way of humanizing the band and contributing to their mystery at the same time.
Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha: Listenable, fun, completely unique, and with perhaps the best lyrics of anyone right now. Is he a gimmick? No more so than any other indie artist out there these days, in my opinion. And unlike mosts of the artists even on this list (with the exception of FOC), his lyrics are inventive and memorable. His live show was a lush mashing solo just-in-time loops that I loved every second of. He’s the hardest working artist that I saw the entire year
Arcade Fire, Neon Bible: Intense album full of rich, lush layers that kept me entertained all year long. Energetic beyond belief live. When I first heard the leaked track containing a powerful organ WAY to high in the mix, I was concerned this was going to be a bad effort, but I loved this album more than Funeral. The show at Starlight was quite possibly the loudest concert I have ever been to, mostly due to LCD Soundsystem, but it was incredible!
4: Flight of the Conchords, music from the show: Reliving lyrics and moments from this show proviided an endless source of good times for me this year. I still randomly get “Brown Paper, White Paper, Stick it together with the tape, the tape of love….” stuck in my head on a weekly basis. Part time Model, Business Time. Not only is it fucking hilarious, but also made me realize how truly strange David Bowie and Serge Gainsbourg were. Not to mention Mel.
5: Peter Bjorn & John, Writer’s Block: Already sounding a bit tired, and used in too many adverts, but it was one of my favorites. Objects of My Affection, Start to Melt, Young Folks, Amsterdam, Roll the Credits, were all on my most played list all year.
6: The Frames, The Cost: I think this is technically a 2006 album, but I discovered it this year with everyone else who saw Once. Nothing really groundbreaking, but great songs with an incredibly powerful, if not sometimes too powerful, lead singer. Occasionally I wince with sentimentality, but this album is perfect when I’m in the mood for it.
7: Shins, Wincing the Night Away: A few great songs on this album, and the album that really got me hooked on the Shins. I never quite understood why everyone loved these guys so much, but after seeing live at a two night stint in Lawrence, listening to the new album over and over, I came to appreciate the older albums as well. An acquired taste for me, but one of best bands out there right now.
8: Jose Gonzalez, In Our Nature: I discovered this great singer-songwriter through the All-Songs live show podcast and was sucked in by his nylon guitar layers and ultra-mellow voice. This is great late night music, and his cover of Teardrop made me rediscover my high school love of Massive Attack.
9: Dan Deacon, music from his MySpace page and Youtube: I never managed to listen to his full album, despite it residing on his ipod, but there were a few weeks where I returned daily to his Youtube and MySpace content. I’m not sure what to think of this guy, but his songs are incredibly strange and enjoyable.
Like many a music fan, I too love to put together these end of year lists. I love scouring the magazines, websites, blogs and newspapers for their favorite albums and songs of the year. While the last few years have been great, I have to say, 2007 is by far one of the best years of music I can remember in a long time.
As a friend and co-worker (and sometime Hello Come In collaborator) and I have discussed, nearly everyone we would’ve wanted a new album from put out something. But more than that, it seems that artists and bands that have been putting in the their dues for years have all put in some of their best work yet. There were plenty of new discoveries, much rediscovery of old bands, and perhaps even a few disappointments. (Note: You can read our mid-year favourites here.)
The one downside I can think of right now about such a stellar year is that I am now wondering what the hell is left to put out in 2008?
My yearly disclaimer: My lists will never be as unintelligible or insider-flaunting as some out there. I certainly do not operate on the notion of showing off my tastes in music by filling lists with ridiculously unapproachable obscura or pick things that flex my hipster cred. I am always drawn to music that moves me, makes me think, and provides an emotional release…and that is all I can provide: a list of my favorites that frequented my life for the last year.
This list will be ever-changing depending on the weather, the time of day and perhaps even by what I had for lunch. So lets dig in…
Top Albums of 2007:
1) Andrew Bird — Armchair Apocrypha :
What else can I say about this album that I haven’t already rambled about in the past? While there were certainly some better albums that made more of a dent influentially, Bird’s witty and melancholy sense of lyrical depth and instrumental prowess was challenging and yet familiar. As the year went on this collection of songs continued to be a go-to source for inspiration and influence. Over time, I think this will assert itself as an all-time favorite and a creative peak for such an already fantastic body of work.
2) Radiohead — In Rainbows :
For one day in October almost everyone I knew and thousands of people I don’t were all talking about music; perhaps in the same way fans feverishly discussed a new Beatles release. As the day wore on, everyone had asserted their opinions of the “pay what you feel it’s worth” distribution, the music industry implications and hopefully, (and most importantly) the music contained within. When you strip away all of the hype and the forward looking business plans and all that, what you have is a stunningly exposed and beautiful album. In many ways this is the most relaxed and honest I have ever heard Radiohead, especially when singing of love (“House of Cards”) or of our lingering legacy after we’re gone (“Videotape”). Radiohead feel loose and at ease with their songwriting, and have created an album that highlights just how much they do everything right. (Plus that diskbox is a work of sheer inspired beauty). What else can you ask for?
3) Arcade Fire — Neon Bible :
How do you follow up an album so beloved and explosively expressive as Funeral? By not imitating or trying to follow it up at all. Win Butler and company expand the scope and soundscape on Neon Bible discussing the ‘big issues’ without feeling like an overwrought soapboxing. Songs like “Ocean of Noise” and “Keep the Car Running” explore the depths of life and death and relationships and war and everything in between in such a dark and poetic way. I wonder how they will attempt follow up this one.
4) The Besnard Lakes — The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse :
When I saw this six piece Montreal-based band this summer, they had already outgrown the tiny stage they were jampacked on. You could easily envision them playing in larger concert halls filling the space with their gorgeous mixture of Beach Boys’ harmonies, epic 70s rock and dark shoegazer walls of sound. I was pushing for this band to get more attention this year, but I think this second album has at least put them on people’s radars. Can’t wait to hear what they have in store next.
5) The National — Boxer
Sure this one’s dark and inward as well, but the introversion The National bring to their music is expressive and universal, making songs about very mundane things such as day jobs and relationships seem grand and hauntingly lovely. Songs like “Fake Empire” (with its polyrhythmic piano) and “Green Gloves” (with its house stalker storyline) have so much going on that they surely will seep under your skin.
6) Okkervil River — The Stage Names :
With 2005’s incredible Black Sheep Boy, frontman Will Sheff said was finally able to make as much money as he did when he worked at a video store early in his career. This notion certainly made me realize that these bands we love aren’t always living the highlife ala Def Leppard. So it’s always encouraging to see a group that has been consistently under the radar finally get the credit they are due: Okkervil River’s latest, The Stage Names, a highly literary concept album, is the best work of their career. Making a song cycle that ambitiously exposed insight and references to popular culture it could’ve been huge catastrophe. But the songs reach great heights and rocked harder than most this year.
7) Feist — The Reminder :
By now we’ve heard the anthemic “1234” about one thousand two hundred and thirty-four times thanks to the iPod commercial and the many television appearances on Letterman and the Today Show. But Leslie Feist’s huge success is highly deserved as came into her own on this amazingly personal album. It’s brimming with lilting yet moody, powerful yet delicate songs of love and pain, musically being both diverse and cohesive. And that voice. Nuff said.
8) Le Loup — Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nationsâ€™ Millennium General Assembly :
A late entry onto my list, this emerging DC band made the interblogs swoon in mid summer when Sam Simkoff spun his solo work into a band by posting music on the internet and ads on craigslist. While they are still learning to play together as a group on stage, this album is a dark take on failed relationships, war and the end of the world as filtered and inspired by Dante’s Inferno. The songs, driven by the same banjo motif played throughout, are about as catchy and densely layered as one can expect from a home-crafted laptop work; personal and impassioned.
9) Panda Bear — Person Pitch :
When you normally hear bands that are labeled as ‘experimental,’ it can instantly conjure expectations of scraping metal and angular, hard to listen to melodies full of disjunct dystopian themes. But Panda Bear is far from that often unfair stereotype. Noah Lennox (of Animal Collective) created an album that pushes boundaries yet is still accessibly easy to listen to. With a patchwork tapestry of overlapping harmonies and soaring Brian Wilson-esque melodies, you could listen to this album a hundred times and still discover surprising nuance and layers every time.
10) Bowerbirds — Hymns For A Dark Horse :
Bowerbirds are one of a few “little engine that could” bands I have tried to champion this year. So while very few heard this neo-folk trio’s ‘back to nature’ album or heard that they all live on in one of those ’50s streamline trailers in the South Carolina countryside, they are certainly worth a listen. The music is stripped down and earnest but definitely not just typical strummy folk music. This album was a grower for me all year, as I often went back to it in times when I wanted a soundtrack to those quieter and more intimate moments, something Bowerbirds’ songs explore.
11) Wilco — Sky Blue Sky
12) Broken Social Scene presents: Kevin Drew — Spirit If…
13) Spoon — Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
14) Band of Horses — Cease To Begin
15) M.I.A. — Kala
Seven Runners Up:
1) The Shins — Wincing the Night Away
2) Blonde Redhead — 23
3) The New Pornographers — Challengers
4) Stars — In Our Bedroom After the War
5) Jens Lekman — Night Falls Over Kortedala
6) Josh Ritter — Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
I’m Not There soundtrack
Six Honorable Mentions (or things I liked but not amazing):
1) Low — Drums and Guns
2) Modest Mouse — We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
3) The White Stripes — Icky Thump
4) Dan Deacon — Spiderman of the Rings
5) Animal Collective — Strawberry Jam
6) Small Sins — Mood Swings
Five Debuts That Show Great Promise:
1) St. Vincent — Marry Me
2) Vampire Weekend — s\t EP
3) The Cave Singers — Invitation Songs
4) Yeasayer — All Hour Cymbals
5) Bon Iver — For Emma, Forever Ago
Four Complete Disapointments (based on my enjoyment of previous albums):
1) Bloc Party — A Weekend In the City
2) Air — Pocket Symphony
3) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — Some Loud Thunder : Some good songs shockingly ruined by overproduction by Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann.
4) Ryan Adams — Easy Tiger : The album that most said brought Adams his comeback, but I found it utterly bland compared to the one-two punch of Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights. Band sounds as good as ever though.
Three Jazz Releases Worth Hearing:
1) Floratone — s\t (Bill Frisell, Matt Chamberlain, Tucker Martine, Lee Townsend)
2) Groundtruther — Altitude (Charlie Hunter, Bobby Previte, John Medeski)
3) Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy — Cornell 1964 : Technically a reissue, but WOW…this puts most ‘jazz’ efforts to shame this year. Seriously, 2007 was yet another disappointing year for jazz. Where are those genre defining records that seemed to be coming out all the time not so long ago.
Two Bands That I Still Just Don’t Get The Appeal:
1) Architecture In Helsinki
2) Sunset Rubdown : Just wrote a review for this album (coming soon) and at times its good, but man I just don’t get it.
One Album I Just Never Got Into (But think I will like once I spend some more time with them):
1) LCD Soundsystem — Sound of Silver
And lastly those that slipped through the cracks but worth a heads up:
Rilo Kiley, Loney Dear, Of Montreal, Apples in Stereo, The Frames, Thurston Moore, The Good The Bad and the Queen, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, Beirut, Devandra Banhart, Shout Out Louds and one of my favourites all year but one that technically came out in 2006, Peter Bjorn & John’s Writer’s Block…great album!
Well thats it for now. Let us know here what you think. If you have a favourite or feel we’ve left something off…write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or right here in the blog comments.