Sunday, November 25, 2007

Matty B's Top Ten Albums of 2007

10. Jens Lekman- Night Falls Over Kortedala
Without a doubt, 2007 was the year of the Swedish Invasion. Artists like The Shout Out Loud, The Knife & most notably Peter, Bjorn & John made big impacts on the world of independent music. There's something strangely (gasp) ABBA inspired by all of these bands in one way or another. Largely rejecting American Blues, Britpop & Garage Rock the Swedes seem to favor shimmering pop with distinctively danceable, clean string heavy tones & a playful, cheeky lyrical style that could only come with English as a second language. Nowhere was this more beautifully executed than on Jens Lekman's sophmore US release "Night Falls Over Kortedala". With lush, at times grandiose instrumentation, Lekman croons over brilliant pop melodies with a wry sense of humor & wit with lyrics that if sung by anybody else might seem awkward & overly silly but coming from Jens is both natural and at times evoke an emotionally depth you simply wouldn't expect on the surface. The record has a tremendous sense of style & swings with confidence, unapologetically fun. Jens almost reminds me of that foreign exchange student that started out the year shy & occasionally getting chuckles for mistakes in his english and then ends up at the end of the year getting elected prom king. Great record.

9. Of Montreal- Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Released in January, Of Montreal's "Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer" turned out to be a strong lead-off for what would turn out to be a great & diverse year in music. In 2007 w/Hissing Fauna, Of Montreal went from being a very ambitious & creative indie band to clear and away one of the most theatrical and utterly exciting bands in America. Remaining intact on Fauna are lead singer-songwriter Kevin Barnes' signature hi-pitched doubled up vocals and all of the bleeps, bloops & quirks you'd come to expect from Of Montreal. The unique thing about Fauna, is that even with all of the publicity (and not to mention product placements) from 2005's Sunlandic Twins, Of Montreal resisted the temptation to write a pop-tart hit making record in favor of an album that has both truly dark & experimental moments on it paired with a smart pop-sensibility with some really classic songs. With a robotic, synth heavy sound & some ridiculously infectious songs, Of Montreal's "Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer" has turned out to make 2007 a big year for Of Montreal.

8. Elvis Perkins- Ash Wednesday

One of this year's tremendously overlooked records of the year was Elvis Perkins' "Ash Wednesday". Elvis Perkins (son of notable pyscho Norman Bates Actor Anthony Perkins) reportedly wrote the entire record about the death of his mother Berry Berenson who died on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. 9/11 based art can be a tricky thing- it's one thing to hear Toby Keith or Darryl Worley to write some contrived, overly patriotic piece of propaganda & it's a whole different experience to hear the musical journey of pain, suffering, acceptance & at times even humor within the tremendous tragedy that directly affected Perkins. With a Dylan-esque approach, "Ash Wednesday" never makes any brash statements nor does it serve as any kind of call to action one way or another. Instead Perkins connects with the listener with a closeness & warmth because of the universality of what he's clearly going through throughout the course of these songs. Though his sense of loss, pain & fear is profound, through the course of the album Perkins becomes just another human being like the rest of us that has to deal with these facts of life & regain some sense of normalcy. For Perkins, "Ash Wednesday" (a reference to wednesday sept 12 2001, the day after 9/11) is just as much about death & loss as it is about life & rebirth.

7. Iron & Wine- The Shepherd's Dog

Iron & Wine AKA singer-songwriter Sam Beam has gone through some incredible transformations. From the soft, subtle early 4-track recordings in which he almost whispers through the songs, to this year's sprawling effort "The Shepherd's Dog" we see enormous, yet comfortable growth from Beam. With a noticeably larger sound & complex instrumentation, the foundation of Beam's craft still remains solid songwriting, folk/bluegrass roots & an intense, somber delivery. This album however is a grower & takes a little time to truly understand & appreciate. Although perfectly acceptable as background music, this is not the kind of record you fully get until you've taken a few intense listens. Shepherd's Dog takes a percussive almost tribal sounding approach and pairs it up with a complexity that if placed into other less capable hands might have come out sounding a little bit messy. Lyrically the record retains Beam's knack for ambiguity, recurring themes & that feeling of the storyteller once removed. The highlights here for me are "Wolves (Song of The Shepherd's Dog)" a full on jam that seems to be a direct descendant of the Calexico tour, "Boy With The Coin"- a nice meshing of the newer full band sound that pairs down to harken some of Beam's early work as well and my favorite track "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" which starts out as a chillingly beautiful ballad that eventually escalates into an expansive anthem that is as much about triumph & victory as it is about sadness & loss that quietly turns out to be the album's masterpiece. Though not an immediate classic, Shepherd's Dog turns into one over time& it's a testament to the brilliance & quiet genius of Sam Beam that it's much more enjoyable to hear it unfold as such.

6. The New Pornographers- Challengers
The first few notes of The New Pornographers latest release "Challengers" run in stark contrast to 2005's Twin Cinema. The lead track "My Rights Versus Yours" delivers a seriousness & somber attitude that The New P's have not been well known for however it's amazingly refreshing & exciting to see over the years that this band is far more than just the supergroup only interested in high energy pop that the press has labeled them over the years. What really struck me about "Challengers" was the fact that even in light of Neko Case's busy solo career & lack of touring with the P's (until returning to the road with them this fall), Case plays a pivotal role on the disc. The title track "Challengers" is an excellent example of Case's contribution & the groups maturation, even as band leader AC Newman continues to be the heavy hitter here, driving home the majority of the disc's songs he does it growing assistance from Case's backing vocals & she solidifies herself as an equal driving force. On "Challengers" by some of the most interesting tracks however are those led by Dan Bejar (of Destroyer fame), utilizing Bejar's unique vocals, The New P's carve out something that clearly separates themselves from simply being a showcase for whoever happens to be leading the group. With "Challengers" The New Pornographers have clearly grown even more than their previous releases & although it might not satisfy the needs for the hyper-active spastic pop that they have come to been known for, "Challengers" might fulfill a bigger purpose for the P's by further solidifying their identity as a band & less as a project.

5. Beirut- The Flying Club Cup
Beirut, (the pseudonym for 20 year old musical super-kid Zach Condon) has made a lot of ground in the last 2 years. Last year's "Gulag Orkestar" landed high on my top 10 list & his 2nd release in as many years "The Flying Club Cup" might potentially exceed the quality of "Gulag Orkestar" further refining & developing this promising young artist. Still heavily steeped in Balkin & Eastern European influenced music, Condon succeeds in incorporating a distinctively French flavor throughout the record & comes away with a brilliantly conceived album full of irresistible organic rhythms, dramatic overtones & an eclectic approach that stays true to it's source without patronizing it. The real clincher throughout "The Flying Club Cup" is Condon's incredible voice-- bursting with sincerity & passion, Condon's vocal delivery could easily fit into any number of genres & with this record we're seeing just that evolution take place. As a companion piece to "The Flying Club Cup", Condon also performed the album in it's entirety for the "LaBlogotheque- Take Away Shows" series. These spontaneously filmed all live performances really help solidify just what an amazing live performer Condon truly is. The final track on Club Cup "The Flying Club Cup" appears in the films with Condon playing solo in an abandoned brooklyn church, slowly band members join him throughout the performance & by the end of the song he is accompanied by not only a large band but a huge 30 member choir and every moment of it is just as natural & well orchestrated, it's as if the players are a fully realized extension of his solo performance. Flying Club Cup is a bold & brilliant step forward for an artist with seemingly endless promise.

4. MIA- Kala
The opening moments of MIA's "Kala" starts with a bar of lyrics from Jonathan Richman's classic song "Road Runner".... and that pretty much sums it up. Nothing short of revolutionary, "Kala" is a fierce bullet of socially conscious, musically diverse-divergent & all our power. Even though it's technically hip-hop, electronic...whatever ya call it, MIA shares few traits with here musical peers. The bulk of the record is delivered over a back-drop collage of world rhythms with MIA's merciless & unrelenting delivery. Tracks like Boyz, Bird Flu & XR2 are dealt with such ferocity & grit that it's difficult to explain beyond the fact that this is a woman whose music is solely designed to create awareness & incite action-- with references ranging from genocide in Africa to US war mongering to world poverty-- MIA is pure political. At the same time, the cover of the Bollywood classic "Jimmy" is actually so refreshingly playful & danceable that one is led to wonder what a full on MIA dance record, removed of the political agenda would sound like (although I'd always take the former rather than the latter). One of the stand-out tracks "Paper Planes" lifts a line directly from chauvinist anthem "Rump Shaker" altering the lyrics with gunshots & the defining line "All I wanna do is *** & take yer money" turning the entire thing upside down. With "Kala", MIA shatters the depth & intensity of her debut "Arular" and in many ways is in the process of developing her own genre. MIA calls her meshing of musical styles part of a 3rd World Democracy.... it truly is more like a revolution.

3. St. Vincent- Marry Me
Every now and again a debut album by an artist introduces the world to something truly unique.... for me this year's debut was that of singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist, Annie Clark also known as St. Vincent. Marry Me is one of those rare records that runs the full gamut of emotions & at the same time it's difficult to even tell where the reality of it all starts & the dark, sometimes twisted irony ends. The chilling instability from a track like "Your Lips Are Red" with it's crashing instrumental attacks & manic vocals makes seems as if Clark it unraveling in front of us...this is made even more confusing (and frankly unsettling) that the very next track stands in direct juxtaposition with the song "Marry Me" a delicately crafted ballad in which Clark croons softly "Marry me John, I'll be so good to you", while incredibly beautiful & sonically pleasing-- it's still difficult to tell whether "Marry Me" is truly sincere to it's purpose or whether this too is a statement of ironic sarcasm carefully wrapped inside this engaging & elegant packaging. That's might be the genius behind St. Vincent however, this constant questioning of where she's going & what her true intentions are. Clark is clearly capable of creating incredible beauty & she proves that on the record however at the same time there's much more to her than just beauty. Deep conversations with Clark herself is really what this record is about & even as she can be just as sweet & sincere as she is stabbing & bombastic, St. Vincent above all things emerges as an artist that keeps the listener constantly engaged, surprised & stunned by her tremendous talent & ability.

2. The Arcade Fire- Neon Bible
So much has been written, detailed & over analyzed about the meteoric rise of The Arcade Fire-- that it's difficult to know where to even start. It's rare that a band (especially an indie band) starts playing to 30 person clubs and within a year shares the stage with the likes of David Bowie, David Byrne & others to enormous audiences that simply can't get enough. For this reason, what's even rarer is when a band like that makes a record that diverges from their previous success and at the same time is of the same high quality (if not higher) than their debut. Such is the case with The Arcade Fire. Their debut "Funeral" took alternative music by storm and by the end of the year saw them drawing comparisons to The Clash, The Talking Heads & others in terms of their possible level of influence. Because of this divergence many (myself included) were a little confused by Neon Bible's somewhat dialed down & tempered approach in contrast to Funeral's fierce intensity, Neon Bible paces itself & somewhere in the spaces between there are moments that are downright profound. Four tracks in, when the pipe organ blasts the opening notes of "Intervention" it's clear that the intensity that initially seemed to have vanished has simply been redistributed & in many ways made more potent. The Bowie influence here is also omnipresent-- specifically listening to Antichrist Television Blues sounds as if it could have been directly ripped from "Hunky Dory". The final track on the album "My Body Is a Cage" is a sheer epic that is desperately somber & saddened within in the first minute or so under the ominous backdrop of the now recurrent theme of the pipe organ which is clearly just as much of a symbolic device as it is instrumentation--- about 3 minutes in, the whole thing gets explodes with intensity & it's as if we can see an army coming down from the hills--lead singer Win Butler shouts "set my spirit free".... nuf said

1. The National- Boxer
To me, the best albums are the ones that reveal themselves over time. These are the records that require work--- careful observation & patience, there's an element of sheer discovery to these records and they simply don't make sense unless the listeners is also a direct participant. For my number 1 album of 2007, I've selected "Boxer" by The National. Most people you talk to about this record (or The National in general) will give you one of two assessments-- either it's brilliant & one of the best -if not the best of the year for them or it's simply dull & sluggish. For those who say it's dull & sluggish, i'd suggest you spend a little more time with the record. A no frills rock band, The National has a subtle brilliance to their music that is almost hypnotic in it's ability to connect with the listener over time. Lead singer Matt Berninger's ( relation to this matt beringer in case you're wondering) deep baritone evokes an emotional intensity on par with anybody in music today with none of the frills. The songs on the record are fleeting & subtle, lyrics that seem nonsensical on a 1st listen incredibly rationalize themselves over time & eventually pry away at your heart until they become your favorite moments on the record. The albums lead track "Fake Empire" builds out of nowhere into not only a classic song, but a truly inspirational anthem that sets the tone for the rest of the record. With many aritsts expanding into huge instrumentation & grandiose arrangements, the National achieve a higher level of emotion & complexity with the 5 piece band on Fake Empire. Tracks like "Ada" "Slow Song" & "Start a War" are utterly enchanting & absorb the listener deeper with each listen and deliver a sense of personal connection that transcends the surface meaning of the songs. Slowly--with a measured, careful & caring approach, "Boxer" seeps deeply into the listener's heart & occupies a place that few pieces of art are capable of. There are no pop songs here, this isn't about music being catchy or easy to hum along with....this is about a journey of discovery & rediscovery that starts revealing it's true genius sometime around listen number 30...where it stops is difficult to say.

Honorable Mentions

Arcitecture in Helsinki-Places Like This
Great record that just keeps getting better, i know i'm going to regret not squeezing this on into the 10
Jose Gonzalez-In Our Nature
Incredible collection of both original materials & obscure covers, Jose's guitar playing is utterly hypnotic
Yeasayer-All Hour Cymbals
eMusic listed this one as "World Music Goes Hipster".... yeah sorta.... you should check it out thought, it's great
Sharon Jones & The Dap King-100 Days 100 Nights
Authentic 70s soul made new by one incredible singer & one incredible band...this is a must own
Vampire Weekend- Blue
Great pop songwriting with a great Paul Simon-esque feel to it
Besnard Lakes- The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse
If it were only for the 1st track on this disc "disaster" this would have been top 5. still a strong debut from this promising band


Jason R said...


Have you seen the NPR Live Concerts from All Songs Considered Podcast? They have free 2 and 3 hour concerts from New Pornographers, Iron and Wine, Death Cab, etc.

I don't know if it's kosher to post links in the comments, so just let me know if you can't find it.

Alex B. said...

I'll definitely give The National another try. I also really like what you said about the New Pornographers album. I agree: They really seem to be finding their identity as a band on that record. Never mind the factt that they seem to do this fashionable "Brian Wilson"/Indie vocal harmonies thing better than anybody else out there.