Thursday, December 06, 2007

Albums Of The Year 2007 Part 1: 100 - 76

ingThere seems to have been rather a lot of negative whingeing about the quality of new music in 2007. All I can say to that is genuine music-lovers should forage over a wider area because I found plenty to like and even more to admire this year. In fact, this year’s list has one of the strongest top 10s I can remember compiling in some time.

Unfortunately, I can’t hope to process all the good music within any year – so I’ll start with a list of honourable mentions of artists who have not made the cut – either because they underwhelmed me slightly, came close but no cigar, or because I simply haven’t managed to hear the entire album. You can try and guess which category they each fall into!

Honourary Mentions
Amerie, Robyn, Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood, Steve Lehmann, Enrico Rava, Deerhunter, The Bird and The Bee, Dntel, Dizzee Rascal, Bloc Party, Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, Blitzen Trapper, The Hold Steady, Von Sudenfed, Orchestra Baobab, Shy Child, Ry Cooder, New Pornographers, Kevin Drew, Om, Sunburned Hand Of The Man, Six Organs of Admittance, Ghostface, Wu-Tang Clan, Jay Z, Sage Francis, Liars, Jens Lekman, Holy F*ck, Common, Klaxons, Manu Chao, Andrew Bird, Field Music, Kings of Leon.

Some of these will no doubt rear their heads in a ‘ones that got away’ feature at the start of next year. But I have to draw a line somewhere – and right now I’m clean outta cash!

100. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Sonovox)
My increasingly ambivalent relationship with this record directed me to ponder whether to include it in this list at all. Arcade Fire remain a mouth-watering prospect in live performance, thanks in part to a uniquely symbiotic relationship with their fervent and devoted audiences (indeed, they played two of the best gigs of my live music year). On record, at least judging by this, their impact now seems somewhat diluted by a bloated and forced sense of ambition, and a rather muffled production that obscures the more effective of their grandiose proclamations. Still, a number of the songs remain vibrant and refreshing amidst the apocalyptic doom and gloom, particularly the affecting Mariachi swell of ‘Ocean of Noise’, which points in new and exciting directions, should the group opt to follow them. As one of the earliest and most ardent enthusiasts for ‘Funeral’, I’m saddened that this is one of those sophomore efforts doomed to some kind of noble failure simply by virtue of the grandstanding impact of its predecessor. By the standards of lesser groups, it might have been considered a triumph.

99. Fridge – The Sun (Domino)
I felt this was a little under-appreciated on release, actually representing a very successful synthesis of Fridge’s early post-rock explorations with the individual impulses behind Kieren Hebden and Adem’s solo work. It’s a highly percussive set, with melody often sidelined in favour of spacious electronic sounds and contrasting rhythmic clutter.

98. Menomena – Friend and Foe (City Slang)
Reliant as it is on its detailed and lavish production values, ‘Friend and Foe’ may not necessarily date too well. It shares a certain kinship with the questing likes of TV On The Radio and Animal Collective, but also has the beating pop heart of The Flaming Lips of ‘The Soft Bulletin’ or the Grandaddy of ‘The Sophtware Slump’. For now though, it’s a dazzling and glistening concoction, with a boundless drive to express novel and quirky ideas.

97. Fulborn Teversham – Count Herbert II (Pickled Egg)
Sebastian Rochford rides again, this time with a ‘punk’ project featuring the slightly mannered vocals of Alice Grant. She’s less irritating and more elastic here than on Acoustic Ladyland’s underwhelming ‘Skinny Grin’ album. It’s also somewhat ironic that saxophonist Pete Wareham gets much more space for improvising here than in his own project. Rochford’s rhythms are kinetic as always, but the unsung hero here is keyboardist Nick Ramm, who is one minute satirising baroque chamber music, and another producing a rampant assault on the senses.

96. Pole – Steingarten (~Scape)
Stefan Betke’s ghostly dub minimalism has a peculiar but concrete appeal – Philip Sherburne has described it as being ‘like the languid silence between two lovers who know that speech is moot’. It’s an intriguing and perceptive notion that hints at the romanticism and eroticism beneath this music’s scientific veneer – the space between the sounds constantly yielding new discoveries and adventures.

95. Fred Lonberg-Holm Trio – Terminal Valentine (Atavistic)
‘Terminal Valentine’ is in fact the third of a trilogy of valentine related albums, the first serving as a tribute to Fred Katz (another venerable Cellist) and the second covering interpretations of the works of others. This third release focuses squarely on Lonberg-Holm’s own compositions and is no less rewarding as a result. There is an intriguing contrast here between the flighty moments of abstraction and the more reflective, ruminative qualities of the central melodies. A Cello trio is still a unit of some novelty, and Lonberg-Holm exploits both the confrontational and the sensuous dimensions of his instrument’s versatile sound. The other members of the group offer fluent contributions and consolidating guidance.

94. The Shins – Wincing The Night Away (Transgressive)
‘Wincing The Night Away’ perhaps suffered that curious fate of timing that often befalls albums released in the first couple of months of a year. For whatever reason, people do not now seem to be discussing it with the same level of enthusiasm that greeted it at the end of last January. This is a shame, as it’s actually the group’s most consistent collection of winning songs so far, with James Mercer’s tendency towards lyrical verbosity firmly subordinated in the service of some infectious and addictive tunes.

93. Herman Dune – Giant (EMI/Capitol)
With their surreal lyrical escapades and cartoonish sense of fun, Herman Dune were in danger of becoming merely an unsung treasure – a cult band with a loyal following. Yet, with the addition of some brilliant cooing female backing vocals and some clever horn arrangements, ‘Giant’ succeeded in broadening their appeal considerably, even to the extent of getting their videos on daytime music TV. The songs are thoroughly charming and heartwarming throughout, and ‘Giant’ stands up as one of 2007’s most straightforwardly entertaining pleasures.

92. Nick Lowe – At My Age (Proper)
You’ve got to admire any elder statesman of rock who gives his album such a throwaway ironic title – it’s surely asking for a critical lambasting. But 2007 had brought with it so many great records contesting the lamentable belief that music has to be the sole preserve of the young. Lowe brings gentle humour and hard-won wisdom to this concise but insightful collection. It’s marginally slighter than its more soulful predecessor (‘The Convincer’), but still highly enjoyable in its warm, relaxed and debonair demeanour.

91. Paris Motel – In The Salpetriere (Loose)
Amy May’s revolving cast of chamber pop explorers are one of Britain’s most charming bands – from their tradition of Valentine’s Day gigs to the compelling narratives of their fairytale songs. ‘In The Salpetriere’ was long-awaited, but more than delivered on their initial promise, veering away slightly from tweeness in favour of something more ambitious and encouraging. Amy’s understated vocals are a particular source of joy throughout.

90. Richard Thompson – Sweet Warrior (Proper)
I’ve been meaning to unpick the back catalogue of Richard Thompson for some time, only really being familiar with those classic Fairport Convention albums to which he made such powerful contributions. Having still failed to achieve this ambition, ‘Sweet Warrior’ seemed as good a place to start as any. It’s a driving, cleanly produced record with a righteous energy that belies its writer’s increasing years. His voice seems to have suffered little or no degradation, and his powerful combination of folk melodic inflection with the spirit of rock and roll is undiminished.

89. Lucinda Williams – West (Lost Highway)
Opinions on ‘West’ depended on whether one preferred the raucous, rocking Lucinda or her more vulnerable, reflective side. I felt that with ‘West’, she wisely concentrated on the latter, in the process crafting a distinctly melancholy and haunting album tinged with a very real sense of loss. She didn’t neglect that surly sultriness completely though – and the best moments of ‘West’ were as thrillingly alive as anything else she has produced in her still developing career. If it’s good enough for Elvis Costello, it’s good enough for me.

88. Kenny Werner – Lawn Chair Society (Blue Note)
Known as something of an acoustic traditionalist, Werner set out to prove such assumptions entirely wrong with this first foray into electronics. It’s not such an about-turn as to constitute an embracing of dance music techniques though – the rhythms are very much the dexterous and adventurous variety unique to contemporary jazz, even when it veers into more straightforwardly funky territory. It is a more ‘produced’ work though, with the studio playing a considerably greater role. It’s also playful and zesty too.

87. Led Bib – Sizewell Tea (Babel)
Led Bib’s signature sound, based as it is on the gimmicky dissonance between their sparring saxophonists, is only likely to carry them a limited distance. For what is only their second album though, ‘Sizewell Tea’ is certainly both confident and confrontational, and it chimes conveniently with the DIY punk-inspired ethos at the heart of the new London indie-jazz crossover. There’s more free-spirited blasting here than on recent material from Acoustic Ladyland though – and it’s certainly no pop record. Instead, its relentless assault is somewhat fearsome and foreboding.

86. The National – Boxer (Beggars Banquet)
Morose, misanthropic and stark, but still developing their more melodic preoccupations, ‘Boxer’ downplayed the group’s aggressive dimensions in favour of some dour, gin-soaked barroom music. If this is balladry, it’s balladry of a particularly torrid kind, and The National have captured a peculiar brand of darkness all of their own. ‘Boxer’ is their most sophisticated and memorable album to date.

85. Manu Katche – Playground (ECM)
The reflective and calm nature of Katche’s compositions make his parallel career as a rock drummer for hire appear somewhat incongruous. Yet, after the beautiful ‘Neighbourhood’ and now this equally beguiling album, there’s little doubt that his own musical voice is deeply personal and highly sophisticated. He’s a player with little or no ego too. In fact, he subsumes himself so completely within the collective on this that he’s often the least prominent figure in his own group. Instead, he complements the talents of his finely tuned ensemble with subtle and redoubtable good taste.

84. Iain Ballamy – Anorak – More Jazz (Basho)
Ballamy, a former member of Bill Bruford’s Earthworks with Django Bates, is a rather undervalued British jazz talent. He returns to his jazz roots here after a number of years experimenting with common ground across genres, and the playing is scintillating. His frequent staccato passages in solos are striking, but he also has a tremendously lyrical sound when necessary. He shares a somewhat satirical bent with former playing partner Bates (just listen to his reworking of ‘My Way’, about as unsentimental a reading as could be imagined). He also gives his band plenty of space to make gestures of their own, and drummer Martin France is on bristling, prickly form.

83. Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond (Pias)
The reformed Dinosaur Jr. sounded, well, exactly the same as they had in 1987. It was as if nothing had changed in the American alternative musical landscape in the intervening twenty years. Yet, as a result, there was something thrilling about hearing the chemistry between J Mascis and Lou Barlow not just restored but enhanced, Barlow being afforded greater respect on this occasion. Mascis’ cracked vocals and primal guitar squall can sound thrilling in any context though, and he blessed ‘Beyond’ with a very strong batch of songs. ‘Beyond’ succeeded chiefly through delivering a made to measure fit for everyone’s expectations.

82. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
Wilco’s ‘Sky Blue Sky’ received something of a critical pasting for the wrong reasons. Dismissed as a conservative retreat, it’s actually an impressive restating of the group’s core values. At its best, it merges excellent craftsmanship with assured individual musical contributions (particularly from fiery avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone). As a result, this is the most exciting and dynamic Wilco line-up so far, with Jeff Tweedy’s voice also becoming a more confident and manipulative instrument in such solid company. Where the record could be criticised is in the dropping off of quality in its second half – it’s let down slightly by some under-par songwriting rather than any inherent weaknesses in the overall approach and sound. The positives still greatly outweigh the negatives though.

81. The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters (Fat Cat)
With an intensity reminiscent of long-forgotten Irish rockers Whipping Boy, The Twilight Sad conjured a dour but ultimately inspiring world of teenage isolation for their debut album. With an atmosphere charged with disaffection and distaste, the music itself nevertheless had a powerful sense of purpose, and the results constituted a stark recasting of rock dynamics.

80. Bill Callahan – Woke On A Whaleheart (Drag City/Domino)
Well at least he got rid of those obfuscating parentheses, but why the loss of the Smog moniker altogether? It left fans and critics alike pondering whether ‘Woke On A Whaleheart’ might finally be presenting us with the real Bill Callahan (whatever that might be). Well, it might be warmer in places, but it’s certainly not a complete abandoning of his misanthropic musings. The influence of Leonard Cohen is still very evident, and his singing is remains distinctively mordant. There’s a greater attention being paid to detail though – and ‘Woke On A Whaleheart’ is, as a result, closer to the more accessible and tender highlights of the Smog catalogue (‘Supper’, ‘Knock Knock’) than the elusive frustrations of ‘Rain On Lens’.

79. Low – Drums and Guns (Rough Trade)
It’s entirely conceivable that every attempt Low make at reinventing their own wheel will be classed as a step in some radical and alienating new direction. Actually, this album may well be more in keeping with the grand tradition of Low than ‘The Great Destroyer’. Nevertheles, simply giving less prominence to guitars and more to classic analogue synths and keyboards works wonders for them. This is still a melancholy and haunting affair, but the occasional bursts into what might even be bright pop (‘Hatchet’) suggest there is new territory for this most dogged of bands to map out.

78. Abram Wilson – Ride! Ferris Wheel To The Modern Day Delta (Dune)
It didn’t accrue quite as much attention as label mate Soweto Kinch’s fusion of hip hop and jazz, but Abram Wilson’s dedicated, genuine tribute to the American jazz tradition and, especially, to New Orleans had a living resonance all of its own. Wilson cuts an intensely serious figure on stage, but there’s wit and heart in this narrative project as well as drama, and the excellent big band performances invoke a range of contrasting emotions. Most of all, it’s simply a driving, toe-tapping celebration of great music.

77. Kevin Ayers – The Unfairground (Lo-Max)
Unexpectedly emerging from his retirement pad in France, Kevin Ayers returned with a sweet and deceptively simply album contrasting neatly with the more obvious experimentalism of his former colleague Robert Wyatt’s ‘Comicopera’. Accepting that it had more modest ambitions, ‘The Unfairground’ was something of a melodic triumph though, and a powerful reminder of the qualities of Ayers’ songwriting. If a little less quirky than his early solo works, ‘The Unfairground’ was both whimsical and charming.

76. Phronesis – Organic Warfare (Loop)
It’s such a good time for the piano trio at the moment that it’s worth taking stock and paying attention to one of the lesser known acts in London. Although part of the Loop Collective, Phronesis have not been afforded the same press attention as their co-conspirators Outhouse or Gemini. Led by the exuberant and expressive bassist Jasper Hoiby, this album was recorded with Swedish musicians (although the band now incorporates other London-based players). It’s a distinctive, muscular work owing a little to the power-trio approach of groups such as The Bad Plus. It’s not averse to lyricism either though, and the complete whole is extremely promising, should anyone else notice.

To be continued....

1 comment:

Vallejo Nocturno said...

An eclectic and interesting selection. Looking forward to the rest for more surprises. Thanks for sharing.