now, at the same time, 2007 also was a year in which a lot of pure shit came out. i'm not talking about hannah montana or matchbox twenty, because you and i don't even live in that world anyway. if you're reading this, you probably don't even know who half the artist are on the billboard top 10. but you probably do know about 50 bands with either the word deer, mice, or fire, in their name.
also if you're like me, you probably have a love/hate relationship with pitchfork media. i personally think that they're full of shit most of the time. i think they're the equivalent of the independent record store clerk that has self-esteem issues and has to always feel like they're outdoing you by discovering the new bands before you do. the problem with that is simple: there are simply not many good bands out there. people like bands that are good. good bands catch on fairly quickly, and there's not much left to listen to. so, what happens? independent record store clerk lowers his listening standards and finds yet-discovered bands that are at some level unlistenable. he is forcing himself to listen to music that he himself really does not enjoy as much as he thinks he does, simply because he doesn't want to admit that he listens to the same music that the rest of us do.
well, i was probably like that to some degree. then i realized how most of what i was listening to did not hold up in even a year's time. i can't tell you how many 'awesome new' bands have not lasted a year on my hard drive before finding their way to the recycle bin.
so, you may find that my list below is perhaps not terribly eclectic. well, i will tell you that i feel pretty strongly that these records are ones that i will have gone back to many times in the next ten years. some, perhaps, for much longer. life is too short to play those kind of games. this is music that sounds good in my ears, music that feels genuine, and music that sets out to accomplish something specific, and nails it.
1. the national - 'boxer'
my two favorite records of the year are the two that require the most listens to fully appreciate. neither 'boxer' and 'sky blue sky' offer much in the way of adventurousness or musical innovation. However, these records, created from familiar palettes and themes, are mature and fully realized works that contain no weak moments, and will be cherished many years from now. 'boxer' is a deceptively intricate record, however, and there are layers in the music that are opened up with each successive listen. the lyrics are another strong point of 'boxer', with themes that echo the current state of the nation, of reconciling basic human needs with a complex and volatile world which seems to grow further beyond our grasp every day.
2. wilco - 'sky blue sky'
lots of folks on the interweb referred to this record as 'dad-rock'. well, i'm a dad, and i like rock music, so i guess i really can't take offense, or view the moniker as negative. if what they mean is that the record brings to mind the music of the 60s and 70s, with high production values and a decent level of musical proficiency and technique, then yeah, this is dad-rock. and it sounds really refreshing in a year when you'd be hard-pressed to find a new twenty-something rock band who really understood what a song is, or cared much about a back-beat. call me a fogy, but i'll take this any day over a stack of animal collective and of montreal records. at least until those guys spend a few summers in songwriting camp.
3. josh ritter - 'the historical conquests of josh ritter'
this is yet another record that disappointed upon first listen. after last year's 'the animal years', which contained one of the best songs of the past ten years in the apocalyptic wartime song-poem, 'the thin blue flame', i was hoping that ritter would channel more of his outrage into a more introspective, political, dylanesque record this time around. instead we do get a dylanesque record, but something closer to 'blonde on blonde' than 'the times they are a-changin'. it's a rock record, with more emphasis on the piano than the acoustic guitar. it's a record about love and love lost and love unrequited. and it's awful hard in these cynical days to make a serious record with love as its theme, and have it seem genuine. this is a stunner of a record. it's one that has never gown tired to me yet, and i have played it to death. full of hooks, great turns of phrase, and punch, it's something that you wish would make the radio -- something that definitely would, in kinder times, when springsteen and neil young and joe jackson were regularly seen on mtv.
4. bruce springsteen - 'magic'
there's really not much to say here. either you love bruce, or you just love 'nebraska' and you think his other stuff is stupid. yes, i'm talking to you. listen up. get your head out of your ass, put down your devendra banhart and sit down with 'born to run' or 'darkness on the edge of town'. forget for a moment that the arcade fire exists and just listen. you hear that? that's a saxaphone. remember when people used to like to see a soloist step up towards the edge of the stage instead of turning around backwards with their hair in their face in the dark corner near the bass player? yeah, that's the good stuff. rock and roll. remember rock and roll? all about girls and cars and your shitty job? about giving people a show that featured entertainment and showmanship? this 'magic' record is one of those rock and roll records by one of the best living songwriters. and it's arguably his best since, hell, i don't know. i thought 'the rising' was a beautiful record. anyway, there are real hooks and melodies here, and true sentiment. and if it came in a different cover with a picture of five greasy twenty-something dudes on the front and was called 'black deer parade', you people would be blogging like a motherfucker about it.
5. jesu - 'conqueror'
i think jesu is proof that even though everyone eventually mellows out and matures, you don't have to sacrifice certain aspects of who you are to do so. justin broadrick is the guy behind godflesh, techno animal, and other behemoths of rhythm, distortion, and rage. jesu does not let up one iota in terms of pure volume and power. it is mighty, this record. but there is a beauty to jesu that was not on display in broadrick's other projects. there are hints of melody, harmony, and chord changes that could melt the coldest heart. where godflesh made you want to punch a hole through a wall, jesu's 'conqueror' makes you want to punch through your rib cage, rip your heart out, and then show it to people you love.
6. the polyphonic spree - 'the fragile army'
i kind of wrote these guys off for a while. you're never quite sure if delaughter can continue to pull it off -- this seemingly one-trick pony, gimmick-band. but i swear, this record contains some of the best multilayered, complex pop arrangements, and pure brio, since bands like queen or wings were playing stadiums. you almost have to hate music to not be won over by 'the fragile army'. i don't care how cynical or hip you are, there is something magical going on in delaughter's world, and the polyphonic spree is about as much of a true escape as you can find, musically, these days.
7. jason falkner - 'i'm ok you're ok'
best known for his work in over-the-top power-pop outfit jellyfish, jason faulkner has been quietly putting out solo material for several years. and, of course, he's big in japan, where his records often come out prior to being released in his home country. 'i'm ok you're ok' is, quite simply, a great pop album. it's probably the most introspective and darkest material that falkner has written. like polyphonic spree's 'the fragile army', you almost have to hate music to not find something to admire, if not love, here.
8. jason isbell - 'sirens of the ditch'
one of the best rock shows i have seen in the past five years had to be the drive-by truckers, on their 'blessing and a curse' tour. this, many feel, was the band at the height of its powers. a muscle-shoals rock powerhouse with three guitarists, three songwriters that could go solo and be fine, and enough years behind the outfit that what was showcased live bordered on legendary, by rock and roll standards. when i heard isbell was leaving, i was not terribly surprised, as any of the truckers could do quite well solo. when i saw them that night, i almost wondered how there was enough room in a band for three top-notch writers. however, now that i have had a chance to enjoy isbell's 'sirens of the ditch' for most of 07, have seen isbell solo, as well as the drive-by truckers sans-isbell, and have heard the truckers first post-isbell record in full, i can say that the loss of isbell is our gain, in a way. now we can enjoy both isbell's and the trucker's records, and can look forward to seeing both live. and both are great. 'sirens of the ditch' is as promising a solo debut singer-songwriter rock record as was steve earle's 'guitar town'. you get plenty of evidence that the young isbell is mature enough of a songwriter to write songs and tell stories that can nearly bring you to tears, and you get the sense that he has a vision and a sound that is truly his own, and not simply an off-shoot of the drive-by truckers.
9. spoon - 'ga ga ga ga ga'
spoon is a weird band in that every record they put out ends up as one of my favorites that year, but i always have a hard time putting my finger on what exactly it is that makes them special. i believe what spoon has going for it is pure chemistry and a wonderful sense of restraint. these guys can control a song in the way that hitchcock controlled a scene. their music is very precise, very calculated, and releases just enough information, but not too much, to keep you fully engaged in anticipation at all times. 'ga ga ga ga ga', besides having the worst album title in recent memory, is simply a solid rock album from one of the most solid rock bands on the planet with one of the most solid discographies going. i don't know if you can find a false note.
10. john doe - 'a year in the wilderness'
this record takes the 'surprise of the year' award. i mean, who doesn't like john doe, in theory. we all have an appreciation for him. but jesus, this record is really great. and it was horribly overlooked this year. i mean, it kind of feels like some kind of a celebrity roast with all the people helping out (aimee mann, jill sobule, kathleen edwards, dave alvin, to name a few), but you never once lose sight that this is a john doe record, and that these are his songs, and damn, they're good.
not many can write a song about a horrible multiple murder ('meanest man in the world') that resonates like this. except maybe johnny cash.
11. st. vincent - 'marry me'
i never read her described as such (i'm sure she has been), but i think of st. vincent as this generation's kate bush. or, at least she's on her way with this debut record. she shares kate's sense of whimsy and her virtuosic musical abilities, and her voice sorta sounds like kate's. although kate is more of a piano girl, st. vincent's weopon of choice is the guitar, and she plays it at times with zappa-esque phrasings, teetering between chaos and precision. beneath all the technique and the highwire acts, however, she never forgets that its melody and universal themes that speak to an audience, and the beauty of this record lies in its balance between innovation and tradition.
12. jose gonzalez - 'in our nature'
while not as wonderful as his debut 'veneer', gonzalez's 'in our nature' is still quite a piece of work. whenever i tell folks about jose gonzalez they initially get it in their head that his music is along the lines of alejandro escovedo or something. not that escovedo is not great in his own right, but there are people with names like gonzalez that come from sweden and create quietly intricate, delicate songs that can make your heart hurt. i am usually not fond of cover songs included in albums. call me a purist. but gonzalez gets away with it with his reworking of massive attack's 'teardrop' (or the theme to 'house', for you young kids).
13. new pornographers - 'challengers'
lots of folks came down on this record for being too polished or not rockin' enough. i happened to like it a great deal. i wouldn't say that it's better than 'twin cinema', so in that regard, i guess you could call it a disappointment. but don't you think fleetwood mac had a hard time following up 'rumours'? there are some really beautiful songs here, and, as always, the chemistry between bejar, newman, and case, is special, and i think we're lucky that they come back time after time to create these records when we all know that they do just fine on their own and in other bands.
the below records are also quite good, and i recommend each and every one of them:
lupe fiasco - 'the cool'
radiohead - 'in rainbows'
bjork - 'volta'
steve earle - 'washington square serenade'
patty griffin - 'children running through'
robert plant and alison krauss - 'raising sand'
les savy fav - 'let's stay friends'
m.i.a. - 'kala'
panda bear - 'person pitch'
the besnard lakes - 'the besnard lakes are the dark horse'
menomena - 'friend and foe'
the white stripes - 'icky thump'
deerhoof - 'friend opportunity'
el-p - 'i'll sleep when you're dead'
modest mouse - 'we were dead before the ship even sank'
kate nash - 'made of bricks'
i must also note that 2008 looks to be a great year for music. i have been lucky to get a hold of several advance copies of some records, and the following i believe may make it to 2008's year-end list:
cat power - 'jukebox'
drive-by truckers - 'brighter than creation's dark'
vampire weekend - s/t
earth - 'the bees made honey in the lion's skull'
nada surf - 'lucky'