Thursday, December 20, 2007
Alex B's Top Ten
#1. Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala:
I had to invoke the pleasure principle here. A guy once described as “Sweden’s answer to the back massage,” crooner Jens Lekman has mastered the fine art of the feel-good pop album. With its lush orchestration and quirky arrangements, Night Falls Over Kortedala has a slick feel and sense of whimsy that never feels gratuitous or kitschy. It’s also one of the wittiest records all year (e.g. lyrics like “you’re getting older…so you get a gun & name it after a girlfriend.” “Hey you stop kickin’ legs/I’m doing my best, can you pass the figs”). For me, the highlight of the record is buried all the way back at track 11 with “Kanske Ar Jag I Dig.” Here Jens pairs doo-wop singers with a glitzy dance beat and droll storyline of trying to impress his girlfriend with random stories about what he saw on television and mostly just making an ass of himself (but then impressing her anyway): “I saw on TV about this little kid who had a pig for a pet/this has of course nothing to do with anything/I just get so nervous when I talk to you.” It’s this kind of bright songwriting and awkward charm that makes Night Falls Over Kortedala my most-listened to album of the year and my #1.
#2. St. Vincent, Marry Me:
This rich and varied debut album has that shimmer of a major artist on the verge. Annie Clark, the singer-songwriter behind St. Vincent vacillates between playful sentiment and seething venom. At one moment Clark’s quirky mezzo-soprano can swoon, “you heart is a strange little orange to peel, what’s the deal?” while hissing “excuse me while I slip poison in your ear.” Marry Me runs through an appealing and varied runs the table from flourishing, jazz-inspired ballads to kinky industrial opera. Little touches like the triangle and flutes floating around in the background of “What Me Worry” gives this album a theatrical, fully conceived quality. Marry Me is an ambitious, dramatic album that often listens like a continuous suite or score.
#3. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky:
I like to think of this album as Wilco’s answer to Nashville Skyline. After two darkly epic records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born it’s not surprising to me that Wilco went small with this one. There’s something sublime about their restraint on Sky Blue Sky. I’m particularly taken by the melodic simplicity of songs like “Either Way,” “Impossible Germany,” and the title track. This makes Wilco’s signature dissonance all the more surprising (and rewarding) when it does come up at other moments.
#4. The 1900s, Cold & Kind:
Something exciting is going in the Chicago music scene and elsewhere with the “orchestral pop” movement. The 1900s are the best of the bunch in a genre that includes bands like The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir (also from Chicago) and the Besnard Lakes. Cold & Kind is highlighted by its rich vocal harmonies, solid alt-country songwriting, and, of course, full orchestral arrangements.
#5. Elvis Perkins, Ash Wednesday:
No one has done melancholy this well or made depression seem this beautiful in a long time. Perkins’ nasal drawl, stripped down arrangements, and taste for minor keys make Ash Wednesday a wistful slow burn. The heartfelt emotion and swaying melodies of songs like “Moon Woman 2” and “While You Were Sleeping” take Perkins’ record to harrowing and sublime heights.
#6. Feist, The Reminder:
The fact that the apparent “queen of indie rock” Leslie Feist hit it big selling Starbucks and Ipods this year takes nothing anything away from the fact that The Reminder was a really fantastic record. It does. however, bring up the question for me of what’s passing for indie music these days? To my mind, this was simply a great melodic songwriting.
#7. The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible:
Was it as good as Funeral? Hard to say. The Arcade Fire’s initial splash was so big largely because they sounded so new and different. On Neon Bible the Arcade Fire still does gloomy rock atmospherics in a way that that no one else can. The tormented cast of characters, pulsing drums, crunchy guitars and ominous church organ gives this album a big, apocalyptic theatricality.
#8. Shout Out Louds, Our Ill Wills:
With Jens Lekman at my #1 and now Shout Out Louds, my #8, I’m beginning to think I should be making that case that Sweden is the new Seattle. In this case, the Shout Out Louds seem to do New Wave better than actual New Wave ever did. But is that really such a bad thing? Shout Louds put an upbeat spin on the old clichés of gaudy synths and breathy melodramatic vocals. The opening track, the angst-anthem “Tonight I Have to Leave It” embodies so much of what’s cool about this band, pairing danceability with a sense of romantic abandon. Coming out of the song’s bridge, lead singer Adam Olenius starts at a low whisper “why won’t you give love” to the big wailing crescendo “Giiiiiiive Loooooove!” I need to see this band play live.
#9. Architecture in Helsinki, Places Like This:
Architecture in Helsinki’s infectious stop-start-pop and nonsense lyrics make for fun, chaotic indie rock. Their experiments with a spectrum of different kinds of instrumentation and dance beats gives Places Like This a musical ambition that set the album apart from releases by similar bands like Modest Mouse and Of Montreal. From the rock-disco of “Hold Music” to the glockenspiel/steel drum rhumba of “Heart it Races” Places Like This is over-the-top indie rock at its best.
#10. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, 100 Days, 100 Nights:
This is a great no-frills soul album that’s right up there with anything that ever came out of Motown. The Dap Kings, played on records by Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, and even Robbie Williams this year. But it’s backing Jones’ powerful voice where they hit their stride. The swirling horns, hard-swinging beats and Jones’ fiery vocals give this album a spontaneous energetic vibe. On songs like “Nobody’s Baby” and the title track, “100 Days, 100 Nights” Jones and the Dap Kings conjure up a compelling mix of passion and regret.