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).