Saturday, December 15, 2007

My Top 20 albums of 2007

I love "best albums of the year" lists. I try to read as many of them as I can. This is for two reasons. First, I like to browse for recommended artists and albums that I may have missed. Second, I like to see what albums other people put where and why. These are always so much fun for me that I decided to do my own list. So here we go, without further ado...

20.Peter Bjorn & John – Writer's Block
I haven’t heard this one too many times through, but it certainly is catchy, and who doesn’t like “Young Folks,” honestly? It has a good mix of indie pop, shoegazer, and lo-fi experimentalism that makes for a pretty good listen. Some of their songs have ended up on commercials, which prolly explains why bits of their songs (rather than lyrics) get stuck in my head.

"Young Folks"

19. Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
Of Montreal has definitely progressed significantly since its earlier days of uber-quirkiness. The Sunlandic Twins is still my favorite album from them, but this one is pretty strong in its own right. There’s the great 3-minute pop of “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” or “Suffer for Fashion” (probably the two strongest tracks on the record, for me), and then you have the almost 12-minute opus “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” giving the album a pretty decent range. There are some flat moments (“Labyrinthian Pomp” comes to mind), but overall, the record performs well and leaves me with a pretty good feeling.

"Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse"

18. Jimmy Eat World – Chase This Light
Oh, Jimmy Eat World…what happened? This band is one of my guilty pleasures; I adore Bleed American and Futures. Both albums have a great mix of energy, emotion, and pop sensibility. This album was a bit of a disappointment for me. It’s still a good album, good enough to make it onto the list. I guess I was just hoping for more memorable songs than what came out. Strong tracks include “Big Casino,” “Let It Happen,” “Always Be,” and “Chase This Light.” The rest of the album, while not bad in any respect, is kinda forgettable. It’s got what you would expect from a pop-emo-rock album; if only they could get a little more inspired.

"Big Casino"

17. Voxtrot – Voxtrot
After a set of EPs, this debut LP from Voxtrot is a nice piece of indie pop/rock work. The songs are catchy, melodic, and have a good positive feel to them, even when the lyrics are a little depressing. “Kid Gloves” is good, and “Firecracker” has a lasting aura to it. It’s also an album that isn’t too imposing. You can play it in the background and let it compliment your environment. I’m only familiar with a few of the songs from their EPs, but this album has piqued my curiosity to see how their other work sounds. Pretty good effort for the Austin band.


16. Maserati – Inventions for a New Season
I have been a fan of this Athens, GA band ever since their first album. The instrumental post-rock world opened itself up to me with their debut “37:29:24.” Since then, they’ve shifted their sound a little while still keeping the solid musicianship that has made them strong. This album is not an exception. With the addition of Jerry Fuchs on drums, the band is even better, with improved rhythm and complexity in their songs. While I think they didn’t need to rely on the delay pedal as much as they do here, overall the record keeps with the pace of great instrumental numbers that pack both energy and sophistication.

"This is a Sight we Had One Day From The High Mountain"

15. Kanye West – Graduation
Of course, another great effort from Kanye West. The music and lyrics are a great combination. He has great introspection and insight as always. The stuff is catchy, smart, and memorable. A couple tracks here and there fall flat (were they drunk when they decided to write and record “Drunken Hot Girls”? That song is pure terrible), but most of the record stands up on its own with “Good Morning (Intro),” “Stronger,” and “Homecoming” standing out for me. All in all, one more strong album; was anybody really surprised?

"Good Life"

14. Band of Horses – Cease to Begin
Pretty good follow up for Band of Horses, but it could have been stronger. “Everything All the Time” was my favorite album of 2006 because from start to finish it had an excellent vibe to it with 10 strong songs from start to finish. “Cease to Begin” has some nice songs, but I feel like they delve a little too much into the southern rock rather than staying within the genre-limbo that made their first album such a classic record. Tracks like “Is There a Ghost,” “No One’s Ever Gonna Love You,” and “Island on the Coast” are the standouts. On the whole, the album’s good, but it’s a little step down from their debut.

"Is There a Ghost"

13. Anberlin – Cities
I like Anberlin, but usually they get a little formulaic at times. It’s almost like if you’ve heard one Anberlin song, you’ve heard them all. This one, however, is a bit of a surprise. There’s more variety, range, and depth to this album than in the previous two. There’s definitely a sense of growth to this record that makes it their strongest and most coherent collection of songs yet. “Godspeed,” “The Unwinding Cable Car,” and “Dismantle.Repair” are some of the better ones, but for the most part, the album is a pretty good listen.


12. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Spoon is one of those bands that gets a lot of praise, and I enjoy their music. I’m just usually not that wild about them. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga keeps with their tradition of good, consistent albums that are memorable, hummable, and more comfortable with each listen. The album’s ten tracks blend well together, and they are well-crafted to create a pretty solid album. “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” and “The Underdog” stick out to me as the strongest tracks. Overall, it’s a very good album, worth a few listens.

"The Underdog"

11. The New Pornographers – Challengers
I absolutely adored Twin Cinema, and I appreciate the more mellow sense that runs through Challengers. It makes the album feel more down-to-earth and serious, which is a bit of a shift from some of the more peppy numbers that the New Pornographers have put out in years past. The downside, though, is that some of the tracks disappear from the memory as soon as the song has ended. “My Rights Versus Yours,” “Challengers,” and “Adventures in Solitude” are the three strongest tracks on the record. “Go Places” sounds like it could have been a cut from Neko Case’s Fox Confessor album last year. I agree with some reviews that say they coulda used more of Neko’s amazing singing voice or given her more range, but on the whole, I won’t complain. Even the best moments on Challengers fall in the face of “Sing Me Spanish Techno” or “The Bleeding Heart Show” (probably The New Pornographers’ best song ever). All in all, another solid effort from the Pornos, even though it’s not as good as Twin Cinema.


10. Okkervil
– The Stage Names
I just got turned on to Okkervil River this summer. I heard that their previous effort Black Sheep Boy is a solid album, and The Stage Names makes me want to go back and hear it. The Stage Names is a great effort, dealing primarily with the complexities that come with acting. Each song reflects a sophistication, attention to detail, and craftspersonship that is quite refreshing. “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” and “A Girl in Port” are standouts, but to be honest, I can’t find a bad song on the album. They just released a pretty good 9-song EP called “Golden Opportunities mixtape” through their website as well.

"Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe"

9. Motion
Soundtrack – Even If It Kills Me
This is another guilty pleasure band for me. The emo/geek/punk rock aesthetic that they go for is kinda endearing to me. Their first album (I Am the Movie) had some rawness and roughness, and their second album (Commit This To Memory) smoothed away some of the rough edges of the first. Even If It Kills Me (produced by Ric Ocasek) wanders even farther into pop territory, but it does so without losing too much of the strength of MCS’s previous effort. They tone down the new wave sounding keyboard enough so that it doesn’t overpower much of the music. Rather, it finds a solid compliment. It has good, danceable songs that still have enough lyrical maturity (for the most part) to move the music beyond simple-minded pop. “Last Night,” “Can’t Finish What You Started,” and “Antonia” are standout tracks for me, but again, the album has very few low points overall.

"This Is for Real"

8. Blonde Redhead – 23
I’m kinda surprised this album isn’t farther up on people’s lists. I really enjoy this album for its range, boldness, and musicianship. I like the combination of experimentation and pop sensibility that make for very interesting and enjoyable songs. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard any Blonde Redhead before 23, but I like their approach to songwriting. There’s a freshness to their music that is memorable without being overpowering. It seems like another one of those albums you put on in the background and let it create the atmosphere. “23,” “SW,” and “Spring And By Summer Fall” are standout songs that help shape the eclectic feel of this nice record.


7. Bloc Party – A Weekend in the City
Bloc Party captured some good attention with their first full-length album Silent Alarm, which led expectations for their second effort. The gang did not disappoint here either. While I found the album to be a little bit of a grower, the payoff was worth it. The front half of the album has more energy than the second half, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the second half is somehow lower quality than the first. On the contrary, songs like “I Still Remember,” and “Sunday” bring the album to a fitting close, balancing faster music with softer, more intimate sentiments. Overall, through different tempos and varying degrees of distortion on the guitars, the album works as a cohesive unit and impresses.

"I Still Remember"

6. The Clientele – God Save the Clientele
The Clientele have a great, soft indie pop sound, and their ability to craft simple, yet powerful music is plain by listening to any of their songs. The primary drawback to them, however, is that one song tends to sound like all the others. On God Save the Clientele, they branch out a little from their tried and true formula to introduce subtleties and nuances that give each song more distinction from the others. “Bookshop Casanova” is the best example of this, as it does not sound like any of the other songs on the record. It is also one of the best cuts. The other songs, though they have more similarity, deliver a sense of emotional vulnerability (thanks to Alasdair MacLean’s unique singing voice) that is hard to match. “The Dance of the Hours” is also a lovely Belle and Sebastian-esque instrumental that is quite possibly the best two minutes on the record. Well done to the band for a great rainy day album.

"Bookshop Casanova"

5. Feist – The Reminder
Leslie Feist has put out another solid record that plays well from start to finish. There is great songwriting, nice instrumentation, and of course, she can sure sing! From the infectiousness of “1 2 3 4” to the quirkiness of “Sealion” to the aching sadness of “Brandy Alexander” and “Limit to Your Love,” The Reminder is a great album that’ll have your toes tapping and linger in your mind for days after your last listen. This record has really been a breakthrough for her, which I’m glad to see. Not only is she on commercials, but she is playing on various television shows like Letterman and recently The Today Show. Her music is catchy without being cookie-cutter, and that is something worth noting. Her penchant for one-take choreographed music videos doesn’t hurt things either. All-in-all impressive effort.

"1 2 3 4"

4. The Shins – Wincing the Night Away
Ever since Natalie Portman announced in Garden State that The Shins would “change your life,” they’ve had to contend with substantial expectations for their next record. Wincing the Night Away handles those expectations and responds with a well-crafted indie pop record. Their sound is more commercial here than on their two previous albums, but that is not a bad thing. They don’t seem to compromise the core of their songwriting and structure for which fans fell in love with them (myself included), and they add an element of accessibility that can only benefit them. “Phantom Limb,” “Australia,” and “Turn On Me” stand out, but again, there isn’t a downside to this album (unless you include the bonus track “Nothing At All” that I—and maybe you—got with the album on iTunes…a completely unnecessary song that almost takes away from the album as a whole, so I’m not counting it as part of the album proper). Wincing shows the Shins getting comfortable in their own skin and making music that is just great to listen to.


3. Arcade
Fire – Neon Bible
I heart Arcade Fire so much it’s not even funny! I got to see them when they came to Atlanta last May, and they were without a doubt the best concert that I’ve ever seen. Each member puts 110% of themselves into each show, and they bring out not only a good sound live but also an enthusiasm that gives the fans their money’s worth (in other words, GO SEE THEM LIVE!!). I think that Funeral is probably the best album of the decade so far, so needless to say I was eagerly anticipating Neon Bible. The album has some big expectations to fill with their previous record, and for the most part, they meet them. We see some subtle changes in direction (like the incorporation of the huge pipe organ in “Intervention” and “My Body is a Cage”) that reflect a positive growth for the Win and Regine specifically, and for the band as a whole. Even songs I thought I would skip on later listens, like “Black Mirror” and “Neon Bible,” grew on me such that I really enjoy the album from start to finish. It’s hard to pick standout songs for this record because the whole thing works together like a very strong unit, but some of my favorites are “No Cars Go” (originally on their debut EP, but they re-recorded it for this record…not much difference in style, yet somehow this version sounds better), “Intervention” and “Keep the Car Running.” The variety and intelligence of the songs make this a must own record.

"Neon Bible"

2. Radiohead – In Rainbows
Seriously, who would have thought in January 2007 that we would be putting a Radiohead album in our “best of” lists for the year? No one even really knew that they were seriously recording another record, so imagine our collective shock when they announce that not only are they done with the album but they were going to leak it from their website…oh, and you can pay what you want for it. The innovation with which this experiment went forward definitely deserves the merit it’s received. The record? It meets and even exceeds expectations. For the first time in their career, Radiohead actually sounds…hopeful. There’s an optimism and a sense of contentment in the music that I haven’t seen from the band before. And if the more playful tone of their recent webcasts is any indication, it’s a trend that goes beyond just the music. The web videos they did for Hail to the Thief rarely featured the band and were more about abstract artistic statements. Here, you see them playing songs from the album and showing an accessible humanity that is just plain refreshing. Usually Radiohead records emphasize the darker aspects of existence, even when there’s a determination to rage against the darkness (“You and Whose Army” and “Street Spirit” come to mind). In Rainbows has a playfulness that makes the album so much fun to listen to. The lyrics emphasize direct human connection while maintaining the unique perspective that we’ve come to appreciate from Thom Yorke. They don’t mess with drum machines or weird sonic augmentation on this record like they had on the past three. Mostly it’s a return to straightforward instrumentation that proves to everyone that Radiohead has still got it. We even see Phil Selway’s drums take a more prominent role here than on previous albums, which is a welcome development. He doesn’t just try to keep up with the other elements on the song; here Phil is actively driving the songs into new territory. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” and “Videotape” are probably my three favorites. All ten songs, though, resonate so well that they might deserve album of the year…but…

"Jigsaw Falling Into Place"

1. The National – Boxer
The National opened up for Arcade Fire when I saw them in May. They put on a solid performance, playing mostly tracks from their upcoming album. Of course, their music was impressive, and I had to get the record. This record far and away exceeded any expectations I had of the band or their music. Matt Berninger’s distinctive baritone is so inviting and connotes fragility in a way that I haven’t heard in a long time. Lyrically, the album contains wonderful stories and excellent ways of seeing life, friendship, relationships, and the insecurity that comes with taking risks. Every single song of the dozen on this record is solid. Each one is distinctive and can stand on its own as just a great song. The musicianship on the record is spot on, from guitars to piano to drums to even accordion (I must say, though, that Bryan Devendorf’s drumming on this album is excellent and is part of the reason for my placing it in the top spot). Some of my favorites on the album include “Fake Empire,” “Mistaken for Strangers,” “Squalor Victoria,” “Slow Show,” “Apartment Story,” and “Start a War,” but, as I said, there isn’t a second of filler on this record. The album is a grower, but it is worth every second you spend on repeat listen. This is even one of those records that you should listen to a few times and then put away for a while. Then, come back to it and re-acquaint yourself with the record. You will be so glad that you did.

"Apartment Story"

That's the list. Thanks for reading this far. I'm sure there are honorable mentions I'm forgetting or something. Happy Holidays!

UPDATE: I'm feeling pretty good about my list, particularly since my top three matches the top three at the Onion's AV Club (in a slightly different order).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


I know, this was done in the summer, but I still feel like posting it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

John Edwards and this notion of hypocrisy

Cross-posted at DailyKos

I haven't totally made up my mind on who I will support in the Democratic Primary, but at this point I'm leaning heavily toward John Edwards. My reasons are numerous, but they revolve around 2 overarching ideas: 1) his policies are specific and lead the country in a direction that I would like to see and 2) he's been in a presidential campaign before, and he's fought through all the way to election day, meaning that he would know the mistakes of Kerry/Edwards from '04 and has learned them. Add to this 2nd reason the fact that he's already been through the ringer the first time, so there isn't much that the GOP can throw at him that isn't either old hat or something he can easily refute...which brings us to the point of my post. The main argument against Edwards goes something like this: "He talks a good game on poverty but he gets expensive haircuts and makes a lot of money; ergo, he's a hyprocrite." The media, rather than focusing on his issues, has decided that his appearance and bank account are more important things to discuss. Let's go through the main three charges:

1) he got $400 haircuts

Yeah, so? Edwards' explanation is plausible. He's a popular guy who has to travel a lot and speak to many different places. They don't have time for him to go to his hometown barber, and they have someone cut his hair at hotels. The hairdresser people overcharged him, and he said himself that the fee is outrageous. Who hasn't gotten a bill for something and realized that they got overcharged?

2) he worked at a hedge fund and made money

Again, so? I'm not concerned about the $400,000+ that he made there because, as I will discuss below, he gave most of his earnings to charity. I'm not impressed by his "I took the job to learn about how markets work" excuse, but ultimately I'm not concerned. This is because he has not changed his stance on the taxation of such hedge funds. It would ONLY be hypocritical if he said that these organizations should still at as tax shelters and enjoy loopholes. He doesn't. Not hypocritical. Some tension maybe, but ultimately not enough to undercut credibility. Besides, I'll happily stack his few months of consulting work with a hedge fund against years of work fighting poverty both as an attorney and as the founder of UNC's poverty center. This objection does not give any credence to the idea that Edwards is hypocritical or doesn't really care about poverty.

3) he got $55,000 for a speech about poverty

This one has the potential to do the most superficial damage, not because of the facts of the case but more because of the way that the right-wing can spin it. In doing so, though, the right exposes its own stupidity and inability to make basic logical connections. In the link above, Carla Marinucci examines every speaking fee that John Edwards charged and found this one to be the most expensive one. The irony of asking for money to give a speech about poverty notwithstanding, the message here is that Edwards is hypocritical for taking money when he says that we should work to alleviate poverty in this country. Of course, FOX Noise Channel has picked up the story and run with it as ammunition for non-stop Edwards attacks, As News Hounds notes, quite well I might add, this just is not hypocrisy. I'll quote them: "If Edwards was going around advocating in favor of poverty, saying we should all strive for it and live simple, non-material lives as he lived the good life, THEN he would be a hypocrite. But what he does is advocate success and tries to show people how to achieve it, as he did." Even a junior varsity high school debater could see that. Edwards wants to fight to alleviate poverty, and his willingness to (cue dramatic music) get paid for working does not make him a hypocrite. It makes him human, like all of us.

Ultimately, these attacks are inconsequential for three main reasons.
1) Attackers focusing on how much money Edwards has made ignores how much money other candidates have made. This is particularly true if you look at the fact that Rudy Giuliani has made $9 million in speaking fees last year, charging over $100,000 per speech and even asking for a $47,000 private jet ride for one speaking engagement. Focus on Edwards' income is more hypocritical if you don't scrutinize that of other candidates.
2) Focus on how much Edwards has made is pointless if you fail to see that he gave almost $700,000 of his earnings to charity last year, including every cent he made from his book. That means even if you take all the money that he made from the hedge fund and speeches, he gave a majority of his earnings to charity last year. I'd say that works in his favor at least as much as (if not more than) the other things that the news media believe cut against him.
3) Finally, there is a more basic logical flaw here: that you have to be poor to care about or fight poverty. This is the most ridiculous of all the assumptions that people make. Edwards has used his position as a wealthy individual (who worked his way up from poverty and, as he's said himself, hasn't forgotten where he came from) to help those who need more help. In fact, he's in a better position to work to fight poverty if he has the resources to devote to it than he would be if he didn't have them. Being rich does not inherently mean that you don't care about poverty. Would we not believe Robert Kennedy for wanting to make poverty an issue in his Presidential campaign because he was a Kennedy? Of course not. It's ludicrous to think that Robert Kennedy didn't care about poor people because of his wealthy family.

Judge Edwards by his issues and how his actions actually effect them rather than trying to create a link between the two that is tenuous at best.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Great article on the Paul vs. Giuliani

Roland Martin, radio talk show host and occasional CNN commentator has a great comment on the surreal back-and-forth between Rep. Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani over the impetus for 9/11 in the 2nd Republican debate. Basically, the gist of the article is that, despite the "Rudy sure showed him" attitude that most have taken toward the exchange, we should be willing to consider what Paul said. Doing so doesn't mean that we love terrorists or we hate America. It actually shows a maturity that we need as a country. It's below.
Martin: Paul's 9/11 explanation deserves to be debated
POSTED: 9:26 p.m. EDT, May 18, 2007
By Roland S. Martin
CNN contributor

(CNN) -- Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was declared the winner of Tuesday's Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, largely for his smack down of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who suggested that America's foreign policy contributed to the destruction on September 11, 2001.
Paul, who is more of a libertarian than a Republican, was trying to offer some perspective on the pitfalls of an interventionist policy by the American government in the affairs of the Middle East and other countries.
"Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we've been over there. We've been bombing Iraq for 10 years," he said.
That set Giuliani off.
"That's really an extraordinary statement," said Giuliani. "As someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq; I don't think I've ever heard that before and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11."
As the crowd applauded wildly, Giuliani demanded that Paul retract his statements.
Paul tried to explain the process known as "blowback" -- which is the result of someone else's action coming back to afflict you -- but the audience drowned him out as the other candidates tried to pounce on him.
After watching all the network pundits laud Giuliani, it struck me that they must be the most clueless folks in the world.
First, Giuliani must be an idiot to not have heard Paul's rationale before. That issue has been raised countless times in the last six years by any number of experts.
Second, when we finish with our emotional response, it would behoove us to actually think about what Paul said and make the effort to understand his rationale.
Granted, Americans were severely damaged by the hijacking of U.S. planes, and it has resulted in a worldwide fight against terror. Was it proper for the United States to respond to the attack? Of course! But should we, as a matter of policy, and moral decency, learn to think and comprehend that our actions in one part of the world could very well come back to hurt us, or, as Paul would say, blow back in our face? Absolutely. His real problem wasn't his analysis, but how it came out of his mouth.
What has been overlooked is that Paul based his position on the effects of the 1953 ouster by the CIA of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
An excellent account of this story is revealed in Stephen Kinzer's alarming and revealing book, "Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq," where he writes that Iran was establishing a government close to a democracy. But Mossadegh wasn't happy that the profit from the country's primary resource -- oil -- was not staying in the country.
Instead, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known British Petroleum, or BP) was getting 93 percent of the profits. Mossadegh didn't like that, and wanted a 50-50 split. Kinzer writes that that didn't sit too well with the British government, but it didn't want to use force to protect its interests. But their biggest friend, the United States, didn't mind, and sought to undermine Mossadegh's tenure as president. After all kinds of measures that disrupted the nation, a coup was financed and led by President Dwight Eisenhower's CIA, and the Shah of Iran was installed as the leader. We trained his goon squads, thus angering generations of Iranians for meddling in that nation's affairs.
As Paul noted, what happened in 1953 had a direct relationship to the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. We viewed that as terrorists who dared attack America. They saw it as ending years of oppression at the hands of the ruthless U.S.-backed Shah regime.
As Americans, we believe in forgiving and forgetting, and are terrible at understanding how history affects us today. We are arrogant in not recognizing that when we benefit, someone else may suffer. That will lead to resentment and anger, and if suppressed, will boil over one day.
Does that provide a moral justification for what the terrorists did on September 11?
Of course not. But we should at least attempt to understand why.
Think about it. Do we have the moral justification to explain the killings of more than 100,000 Iraqis as a result of this war? Can we defend the efforts to overthrow other governments whose actions we perceived would jeopardize American business interests?
The debate format didn't give Paul the time to explain all of this. But I'm confident this is what he was saying. And yes, we need to understand history and how it plays a vital role in determining matters today.
At some point we have to accept the reality that playing big brother to the world -- and yes, sometimes acting as a bully by wrongly asserting our military might -- means that Americans alive at the time may not feel the effects of our foreign policy, but their innocent children will.
Even the Bible says that the children will pay for the sins of their fathers.