*updated on 12-17...corrected the M. Ward gaffe*
1. Okkervil River - The Stage Names
Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe (Live on Conan 8-28-2007)
Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe (Live SXSW 3-16-2007)(mp3)
Will Sheff brings songs to life through imagery like no other. He's as much a screenwriter as he is a songwriter. Part of his genius is his way of seemingly summoning the listener's life into a movie. Here's one of those universal scenes, from the anthemic Unless It's Kicks, that many of us can relate to:
He's been driving too long
On a dark windless night
With the stereo on
With the towns flying by
And the ground getting soft
And the sound in the sky
Coming down from above
It surrounds you at times
And it's whispering, oh
...and this, from the same song...
What breaks this heart the most is the ghost of some rock and roll fan
Exploding up from the stands
With her heart opened up
And I want to tell her, "your love isn't lost"
And from A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene:
Like it's lived in these nights, holding your hatred tight
Like a sign that you're right and you're strong
When all the doors are shut tight, I will dream you tonight
And my dream will just sweep you along
And from A Girl In Port:
Well, I'm a weak and lonely sort
Though I'm not sailing just for sport.
I've come to feel, out on the sea,
these urgent lives press against me.
I'm just a guest, I'm not a part
With my tender head, with my easy heart.
These several years out on the sea
have made me empty, cold, and clear.
Pour yourself into me.
The first two songs on The Stage Names are my two favorite songs of this year.
2. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
(Antichrist Television Blues)(Live on Austin City Limits (PBS) Nov 2007)(mp3)
Perhaps the most enduring video image of this year is their performance of the title track in an elevator for a Blogotheque Take-Away Show, with torn magazine pages as percussion.
Death, religion, the tension between modern desires and traditional beliefs, the distance between consciousness and reality, and the pressing need to escape remain recurring themes for Arcade Fire, and in this album, they effectively use overwhelming sonic force to reflect the often overwhelming fears associated with these themes. In Keep The Car Running, they excaim,
Every night my dream's the same
Same old city with a different name
They're not coming to take me away
I don’t know why but I know I can’t stay
They know my name because I told it to them
But they don't know where and they don't know when
It's coming or when
But it's coming, keep the car running
And in My Body Is A Cage:
My body is a cage
That keeps me from dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key
I’m standing on the stage
Of fear and self-doubt
It’s a hollow play
But they’ll clap anyway
3. The Pipettes - We Are the Pipettes
I Love You (Live on MPR's The Current, 6-8-2007)(mp3)
This counts, because it's the U.S. release with bonus tracks, and I didn't do a list last year.
They've been both lauded and cursed as a Phil Spector throwback girl band with a modern twist. Let's get past that, and admit that we can't resist the urge to joyfully sing the background "thoughts have turned to murder" in It Hurts To See You Dance So Well:
Half past one on the dance-floor,
and my thoughts have turned to murder,
can't these strangers feel my eyes, burning into them,
they know that i wanna kill them,
And don't deny that you love the enthusiastic cruelty of Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me:
Get out of my face
I'm gonna back out to chase
some other guy
Who I might like
4. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights
100 Days, 100 Nights (Live On KCRW, 12-3-2007)(mp3)
Sharon Jones can sing...she does it with spiritual power like Aretha or Patti. The Dap-Kings, though, are the absolute essence of this record. The descending horn line that opens the title track, echoed in the guitar line that opens Let Them Knock, sets the dramatic tone, and it only gets better. This is one of those rare albums that rewards the listener instantly and reveals itself with repeated plays.
5. Georgie James - Places
Long Week (Live on MPR's The Current, 11-12-2007) (mp3)
The Smudge blogged and blogged about GJ over the last two years, after discovering on Laura Burhenn's website that she was partnering with Q and Not U's John Davis for a special project. The result of their efforts beautifully reflects their love for classic 60's & 70's pop with big voices and big keys, a la Donovan, The Zombies, and Captain and Tennille. I listen to Places when I'm in the mood to overindulge in hooks and harmonies, which turns out to be several times a week.
6. Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha
Imitosis (Live on Faith Salie's Fair Game 12-5-2007)(mp3)
The first time I listened to this album was in bed, enclosing headphones on tight, with a CD player instead of my iPod. It made me switch back to my portable CD player as a lullaby machine. The whistles sound absolutely pure on CD, and instead of falling asleep, I found myself laughing aloud as my ears absorbed each song's passing brilliant moments, spellbound by the dynamics, the tension, and the release.
7. The White Stripes - Icky Thump
Icky Thump (Live on Conan 6-18-2007)(mp3)
One day, Jack White will run out of fresh ways to make guitar and drums do as much as he makes them do. And on that day, the earth shall mourn the fact that it rocks a whole lot less. Luckily, that ridiculous, sick solo that closes You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told) is freaking eternal. Intergalactic beings will find it long after we've been swallowed by the sun, and determine that it was created by a higher intelligence. They will recreate the Gretsch, but will find that no alien can make that sound with it.
8. Radiohead - In Rainbows
Thom Yorke has the dark gift of being able to draw the listener in, only to make him squirm in anguish, the way that a brief shower beckons an earthworm onto a sunlit sidewalk. People who find a macabre beauty in scenes like that are likely to be Radiohead fans.
The piano on this album gives it an air of mystery. Whether a harsh and dissonant noise, or a somber whispered melody or chord, it reinforces the hard truth you hear in Yorke's voice. When it repeats like clockwork, the time tricks in the rhythm section pull the stability from under you.
9. The Comas - Spells
Spin and Rolling Stone both named their last release, Conductor, one of the best albums of 2004 that you didn't hear. You'd think that we wouldn't overlook their brilliant 2007 follow-up, Spells, but I'm not seeing it on many best-of lists out there. Maybe someone can explain why this album was so quickly forgotten, with songs like Red Microphones, Come My Sunshine, and I Am A Spider (mp3), with that tornadic solo just after the three-minute mark.
Here are the last five on my list, which I won't elaborate on, but each of which brought me hours upon hours of listening ecstasy, and hey, enjoy the mp3s.
10. Menomena - Friend and Foe
Do these lines from Muscle'n Flo still hit you?
...it's light out
and I now
face just what I'm made of
Come lay down your head upon my chest
feel my heart beat feel my unrest
If Jesus could only wash my feet
Then I'd get up strong and muscle on
They still hit me, every time, and this CD came out in the beginning of the year. It's more than just the album cover that endures. There is a total absence of rock cliches on this album, and creative uses of power piano, including the pedal point solo on Wet and Rusting and the attacked chords and single notes on Rotten Hell. This is a muscular effort, and I have a feeling that Menomena is going to be pushing out future classics for a long time to come.
Wet And Rusting (mp3)
11. Klaxons - Myths of the Near Future
It's Not Over (Live on MPR's The Current, 4-18-2007)(mp3)
12. The National - Boxer
You've Done It Again, Virginia (Live on WOXY 9-23-2007)(mp3)
13. New Pornographers - Challengers
My Life Versus Yours (Live, Acoustic on MPR's The Current, 10-17-2007)(mp3)
14. The Octopus Project - Hello Avalanche
I Saw The Bright Shinies (mp3)
15. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
I'm convinced that this album is better for your brain than the Nintendo DS.