Thursday, December 06, 2007

Albums Of The Year 2007 Part 2: 75-51

,In an attempt to make this more digestible, I'm dividing this into four chunks this year, so here's the second. The Top 50 will follow tomorrow.

75. Bettye LaVette – Scene Of The Crime (Anti)
The return of the soul survivor continued apace with this triumphant, defiant album, consisting largely of interpretations of songs written by men (her previous comeback album had been made up entirely of songs written by women). Best of all was a powerful transformation of Elton John’s ‘Talking Toy Soldiers’, which proved surprisingly fertile ground for LaVette’s gritty vocal style. It was given stiff competition by the one original here – a stylish, no-holding-back monologue detailing her life story and the injustices she suffered at the hands of a fickle and manipulative music industry. Maybe now she can finally put the past behind her.

74. Wheat – Every Day I Said A Prayer For Kathy and Made A One Inch Square (Empyrean)
Not many people noticed or indeed cared that Wheat had made another record – but delve beneath that infuriatingly pretentious title, and there’s an album of real quality and invention waiting to be discovered. It’s a little off-kilter, occasionally sounding somewhat drunk, but this is an inherent part of this rather unusual music’s quirky appeal. It’s more adventurous than most American alternative rock, and certainly more distinctive but the group now sadly seem to lack any hipster cachet.

73. Tord Gustavsen Trio – Being There (ECM)
Tord Gustavsen continued to refine rather than revolutionise his dignified, spiritual take on the piano trio for ‘Being There’. It’s still a potent sound though, with some bolder ventures into more rhythmically driven territory, although the volume remained defiantly controlled. Gustavsen’s improvising is not particularly complex, but then that style of playing may well have sounded vulgar in such a restrained context. Instead, his slow-paced development of his themes again worked perfectly and the mood was gracefully sustained from start to finish.

72. Empirical – Empirical (Destin-E)
Kit Downes is a remarkably assured, if perhaps slightly studied pianist – and he’s a lively player as part of a truly vibrant ensemble in the context of Empirical. With a debut on Courtney Pine’s label and plenty of press hype, the group have proved remarkably adept at playing the game and they certainly look the part too. There’s little point in resisting the energetic and engaging performances here for cynical reasons though, even if the group’s original contribution has perhaps been somewhat overstated at this early stage. The potential for greatness is certainly there though.

71. Boxcutter – Glyphic (Planet Mu)
If last year’s Oneiric felt like a slightly self-mocking, parodic take on dubstep (and was arguably enjoyable for precisely that reason), ‘Glyphic’ feels like a more fully-formed and weightier statement. It’s an audacious record that steers clear of the genre’s already tiring formulas in favour of something less tangible and more unusual. It’s a record refusing to follow trends, instead paving the way for this still burgeoning sub-genre to advance and develop.

70. Grinderman – Grinderman (Anti)
Well if this is simply Nick Cave kicking back, growing sinister facial hair, indulging himself and having a little fun, I’d like to hear more of it in the future. Untamed, aggressive, masculine and noisy, with outlandish and outrageous lyrics, this is a record in thrall to notoriety and provocation. Luckily it comes with a grim sense of humour too, which might just save it from accusations of misogyny. Those eagerly awaiting the next statement from The Bad Seeds will be satiated with a new album early in the new year. Cave is increasingly prolific these days!

69. Boris with Michio Kurihara – Rainbow (Blue Chopsticks)
Initially a Japanese-only release, and later afforded more widespread distribution, this collaboration between Boris and the outrageously gifted Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara is stormy and impassioned. Yet it perhaps owes a good deal more to maverick 70s psychedelia than to the drone or metal with which Boris themselves might be more familiar. It’s no less revelatory for this though, and is another firm demonstration of the talents of this most exploratory of bands, adding a propensity for sensitivity in collaboration to their many-stringed bow.

68. John Scofield – This Meets That (Emarcy)
This is certainly among Scofield’s better efforts, combining his best trio set-up (with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart) with an expressive and meticulously arranged four part horn section. It’s arguable that the interpretations yield more interesting results than the originals, particularly with Bill Frisell guesting on a thoroughly revitalised ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. Still, the feel throughout the album is tremendous, and Scofield continues to marry blues-driven aggression with the wider language of jazz to quite brilliant effect.

67. Alasdair Roberts – The Amber Gatherers (Drag City)
Alasdair Roberts remains criminally unheralded here in the UK, gaining most of his accolades on the other side of the Atlantic thanks to his friendship with Will Oldham. With all this talk of the new folk music going on, it’s extraordinary that nobody seems to mention Roberts – his handling of the Scottish folk canon has demonstrated an unforced and original approach absent from some of the more self-conscious freakery. The sense of calm he brought to that material continues here, but there’s a warmer, less mournful tone here that makes ‘The Amber Gatherers’ almost breezy.

66. Band Of Horses – Cease To Begin (Sub Pop)
With a reconfigured line-up, Ben Bridwell’s Band of Horses stopped trying to play My Morning Jacket at their own game and developed a brighter, more distinctive sound for this excellent second album. There’s also more time for reflection and mood here, and the album takes a number of engaging and unexpected side-steps, from Appalachian traditional hoe-downs, to more sonorous and unpredictable textures.

65. Arve Henriksen – Strjon (Rune Grammofon)
Norwegian trumpeter Henriksen’s weird and eerie music is evocative of ritual and folklore and he is clearly a musician far more interested in sensation and feeling than in the expression of technique. As such, he’s often keen to manipulate the sound of his trumpet so that it resembles almost anything other than the instrument he’s actually playing. The result is a disorientating but breathtaking – a sound that combines the deeply intuitive with the completely synthetic in a profoundly intimate setting.

64. Elmore Judd – Insect Funk (Honest Jon’s)
Released on Damon Albarn’s label (irritating he may be, but his broader industry role is currently paying rich dividends), this delightfully quirky electro-funk gem is an outsider’s pop nugget. With hints of Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, but also a gleeful smattering of the sexual urgency of Prince, it’s in part highly seductive, but its charms are also somewhat angular and awkward.

63. Myra Melford/Trio M – Big Picture (Cryptogramophone)
What a shame I’ve come rather late to the extraordinary music of Myra Melford. Her ‘Be Bread’ project was actually one of the standout jazz albums of last year, but I only heard it for the first time a couple of months ago after some particularly productive MySpace surfing. This trio album is a collaborative venture with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson, less spiritual and reflective than its predecessor and dominated by adventurous playing. It’s an intensely serious workout, full of fire and brimstone. The group bend rules imaginatively and effectively, and there is much enjoyment to be gained from their collective malleability – veering between a variety of pulses and free time with gleeful abandon.

62. Bruce Springsteen – Magic (Columbia)
‘Magic’ seemed a little underwhelming on first few listens, not least because Springsteen had returned to Brendan O’ Brien for production duties. Yet again he blurs and muffles the E Street Band sound, subsuming the input of the individual musicians within a vague guitar smudge. Still, the songs are consistently powerful – and Springsteen remains a writer who can cut right to the heart of the American psyche. The political fury of recent outings was still present, although perhaps a little more blurred with the personal. Sometimes the lyrics were slightly convoluted (‘Livin’ In The Future’), but at their best, they captured that everyman melancholy for which Springsteen is rightly lauded (especially ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’ and the title track). It’s a crowd-pleasing, driving, insistent record, but it needed time to, ahem, work its magic.

61. Colleen – Les Ondes Silencieuses (Leaf)
Parisian experimentalist Cecille Schott’s questing impulse manifests itself in the desire to perform on an ever more obscure and intriguing set of instruments. On ‘Les Ondes Silencieuses’, she added the viola de gamba and the Spinet to her collection. There’s a real sense of space and calm here, and the Schott imbued the music with humanity and emotional depth. The results were more mournful and plangent than her previous releases but also more absorbing.

60. Scott Colley – Architect Of The Silent Moment (CamJazz)
Bassist Scott Colley (who also played on Kenny Werner’s ‘Lawn Chair Society’) produced one of 2007’s most underrated gems with this effortless combination of academic musicality and carefully calibrated grooving. There’s a mysterious undertow to this dense and challenging music, and it has a fiercely contemporary mind behind it.

59. Wooden Wand – James and The Quiet (Ecstatic Peace)
James Jackson Toth’s first release for Thurston Moore’s burgeoning Ecstatic Peace label may well seem weirdly conventional to his most ardent followers. There’s little consciously weird or provocative about this set. Yet, in its very starkness and austerity, ‘James and The Quiet’ is a disturbing and vivid document, a psych-blues manifesto of the highest quality.

58. Exploding Star Orchestra – We’re All From Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey)
The pompous liner notes touching on the music of Gyorgy Ligeti and the unity of the cosmos are somewhat off-putting, but this big band contemporary project from the Thrill Jockey staple (including members of Tortoise) is actually refreshing and exciting. In its most powerful, driving moments, it’s both relentless and rewarding, but the passages of abstraction are successful too. If the language used to describe it is rather pretentious, it’s lucky that the music itself does capture something of the sense of vastness and infinite space to which it boldly aspires.

57. Super Furry Animals – Hey Venus! (Rough Trade)
Some saw ‘Hey Venus!’ as something of a conservative retrenchment from SFA, but after the hazy, woozy and ultimately rather soporific ambience of ‘Love Kraft’, I found it a refreshing return to fun and games. It’s a mercilessly concise record that wastes no time and immediately buries itself deep beneath the skin. The lyrics remain uniquely zany. Who could possibly resist a line like ‘We may have fought with tooth and nails/But I still remember your banking details’? There are still no other bands who can match SFA for their palpable sense of adventure and fantasy.

56. Rilo Kiley – Under The Blacklight (Warner Bros)
Oh no! Every fey blogger’s favourite indie band had sold out and gone ‘a bit Fleetwood Mac’! Apparently, this provoked major consternation in the online music community. It’s all no bad thing in my book, even if late Blondie would seem a more accurate reference point for this disco-infused, remarkably polished pure pop wonder. It’s a great deal better than their previous pop music with indie affectations, and Jenny Lewis’ voice sounds increasingly purposeful and confident. That Rilo Kiley are a group of versatile and intelligent musicians helps too – these songs are well arranged, and the group are now avoiding the pitfalls of so much bland guitar pop music in favour of something insistent and rather slinky. If you’re an unconvinced indie kid – let Lewis herself tempt you in – after all, ‘what could be more indie than songs about gonzo pornography’?

55. Immaculate Machine – Immaculate Machine’s Fables (Mint)
Even the presence of Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and members of the ghastly, unfathomably popular Cribs couldn’t raise the profile of this charming album from these Canadian underdogs. This is as taut and crisp as its equally excellent predecessors, but some subtler, more melodic shades are added into the mix, making for a more balanced whole. This group manage to draw a lot of magic from the keyboard-guitar-drums format, and are blessed with an unrelenting energy. They deserve far more attention in this country, particularly as they crafted a more substantial and satisfying record than their more highly regarded associates in New Pornographers.

54. Murcof – Cosmos (Leaf)
‘Cosmos’ represents a fascinating refashioning of Fernando Corona’s classical-meets-electronica approach. His debut ‘Martes’ and its successor ‘Remembranza’ were haunting and beautiful amalgamations of beats and strings. ‘Cosmos’ mostly forsakes this synthesis in favour of gradual swellings of texture and noise. This is a darker record than its two predecessors, and one that only gradually reveals its true colours. It’s a mesmerising side step from one of the current pioneers of electronic music.

53. Caribou – Andorra (City Slang)
Dan Snaith's musical adventures continued on the doggedly hazy, summery path he’d been pursuing since ‘Up In Flames’ signalled a radical change of direction from his original IDM. ‘Andorra’ seemed like a more fully formed statement than ‘The Milk Of Human Kindness’ – warm, lush and irresistible, but also prone to the occasional bit of troublemaking. Snaith’s canny synthesis of 60s pop melodies with more free form elements and clattering rhythms made for a compelling and elevating work.

52. Beirut – The Flying Club Cup (Ba Da Bing/4AD)
Zach Condon consolidated his prodigious talents on this rather charming second album, a record that invites the listener into its own peculiar world. Condon’s exaggerated vocals perhaps owe something of a debt to Rufus Wainwright, but the music remains infused with a bawdy Eastern European sensibility, along with some more tentative forays into French chanson. It might all seem like affectation were it not for the rich mystery and insight of Condon’s wonderful songs.

51. Paul Bley – Solo in Mondsee (ECM)
The nameless variations on 'Solo in Mondsee' are impressive elaborations on clearly stated musical ideas and themes. Whilst he frequently hints at pages of the standard repertoire, Bley is more concerned with emotional impact than referencing or thematic deconstruction. In a similar way to how Paul Motian gets tonal variety from the drum kit, Bley is chiefly concerned with contrasts at the Piano, rather than persistence or insistence. The music on 'Solo in Mondsee' is lush and deeply romantic.

Come back tomorrow for the Top 50!

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