Friday, December 07, 2007

Albums Of The Year Part 4: 25-1

Just before I kick off the final instalment, a quick reminder of the previous albums of the year here:

2006: Bruce Springsteen - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
2005: Acoustic Ladyland - Last Chance Disco
2004: Wilco - A Ghost Is Born
2003: Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It In People (in a piece written for John Kell's Unpredictable Same fanzine - this blog started in March 2004)

I'm not sure I stand by some of those choices now! Without further ado, here's the Top 25 of 2007...

25. Tinariwen – Aman Iman: Water Is Life (Independiente)
The Tuareg Desert Blues masters reached a substantial audience here in the UK with this stirring and potent set. Demonstrating just how much life and vitality can be drawn from very minimal harmony, the group exploited the unfamiliar tones and scale constructions of their native music to colossal impact. This is fervent and righteous music, its political motivation and unapologetic rebelliousness evident in spite of the language barrier.

24. Rufus Wainwright – Release The Stars (Polydor)
Initial impressions of ‘Release The Stars’ might suggest that Rufus indulged all his camp fantasies across one dazzling, totally over the top collection, but there’s more to ‘Release The Stars’ than meets the eye. Like the rest of his best work, it somehow manages to be simultaneously frivolous and profound. Whilst he’s certainly not one to resist the temptation to over-egg the pudding, the lavish treatments adorning the songs here seem appropriately ostentatious rather than merely extravagant. Best of all, his voice continues to develop into a really powerful instrument – there’s less of the exaggerated slurring and much more personal conviction this time around.

23. El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (Definitive Jux)
Whilst there were no hip hop albums in the league of ‘Liquid Swords’, ‘The Cold Vein’ or ‘Fishscale’ this year, Definitive Jux’s production maestro El-P came pretty close with this brooding, unsettling collection. It’s certainly a hip hop album where the focus is as much on the music as the lyrics – the dark, tense and claustrophobic atmospheres that El-P conjures have become something of a signature sound. Added to this are some original, occasionally surreal words that push well beyond rap’s usual braggadocio and machismo.

22. PJ Harvey – White Chalk (Island)
There’s something genuinely creepy, disturbing and malevolent about ‘White Chalk’. It seems, at least in part, to be a document of the corruption of innocence and the end of childhood, and its language is dark, foreboding and unrepentant. The presentation is similarly uncompromising, with Polly mostly abandoning guitars in favour of very skeletal, untutored piano playing. ‘White Chalk’ seems to constitute a deliberate repudiation of virtuosity from one of our most accomplished artistes, but the results are dependably vivid and unsettling.

21. Olafur Arnalds – Eulogy For Evolution (Erased Tapes)
Iceland’s freshest export has been highlighted as the obvious next step for lovers of Sigur Ros’ composition with rock dynamics. Where Sigur Ros sometimes veer into plodding rhythmic banality, Arnalds avoids this pitfall by frequently jettisoning rhythm in favour of mood and atmosphere. These are remarkably pure and elegantly simple compositions, full of space and silence and with individual notes held as long as feels necessary. Themes are repeated and developed rather than merely stated. The result is a concise but meaningful collection of profound and aching sadness, unrepentantly desolate and mournful.

20. Efterklang – Parades (Leaf)
With ‘Parades’, Danish group Efterklang crafted one of the most original and fascinating releases of the year. There’s something of the collective joy so beloved of The Polyphonic Spree in their layered choral vocals and chamber arrangements, but their nimble incorporation of marching rhythms and furtive textures marked them as several leagues above that most pretentious of bands. Their occasional preference for melancholy calm over quasi-religious fervour also results in a less overbearing, more immersing sound. This is adventurous music that veers between the mysterious and the extraordinary, brilliantly arranged and executed with formal restraint. There are now so many acts keen to find that intersection where electronics and acoustics subsume each other that it would be too easy to neglect those bands that hit that very spot perfectly. Efterklang are certainly one of them.

19. Iron and Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (Transgressive/Sub Pop)
I’ve been harping on about Sam Beam’s literary brand of songwriting for some time here, but ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’, comfortably his most consistent album to date, sees him expand his musical outlook too. Softly spoken and well versed in the art of understatement, Beam’s new vision of American folk is now not just rich in gothic imagery and allusive language, but also able to incorporate a wide range of musical infusions from dub reggae to African rhythms with adroit tenderness. Members of Calexico embellish Beam’s ensemble with a pioneer spirit. As usual, a handful of the songs here are effortlessly moving, and the whole album coheres beautifully.

18. Curios – Hidden (Jazzizit)
Acoustic Ladyland have garnered considerable publicity over the last couple of years for their insistent, media-friendly fusion of punk and jazz, but their quietly gifted and unassuming keyboardist Tom Cawley crafted a magisterial record of his own in 2007, to a sadly much less significant fanfare. It’s a great time for the piano trio at the moment, and Curios are among a number of groups really pushing the format well beyond its obvious limitations. With a near perfect balance of elegiac, emotional ballads, palpable swing and rhythmically propulsive energy, the group adds real muscle and impressive interplay to Cawley’s sophisticated compositions. Veering from the frantic to the sensuous, ‘Hidden’ is a multi-faceted and deeply rewarding work.
17. Battles – Mirrored (Warp)
With Tyondai ‘son of Anthony’ Braxton and members of Helmet and Don Caballero amongst their number, Battles were always going to be an adventurous proposition. Yet the more predictable math rock of their initial EPs gave little preparation for this confounding and exceptional debut album proper. ‘Mirrored’ is off-kilter but thoroughly groovy, and full of all manner of interesting sounds. It’s a supremely technical music by most rock bands’ standards, but it also encapsulates the basic, elemental thrill that comes from the best rock and roll.

16. Bruce Springsteen and The Sessions Band – Live In Dublin (Columbia)
It’s a bit of an indulgence to include this fantastic live recording in addition to Springsteen’s E Street comeback, but it’s just such a thrilling, celebratory document that it couldn’t have been omitted. Springsteen’s shows with the Sessions band may not have reached as many people as the E Street stadium extravaganzas, but they certainly rivalled those shows for intensity and unrestrained mass celebration. Digging deep into musical history, Springsteen channelled his characteristic fervour and grit through the great American canon, reinventing many of his own original songs in the process. Best of all was his biting rewrite of Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live’ to reveal George W. Bush’s incompetence and thinly veiled indifference in the face of Hurricane Katrina. ‘He’s the best of what America could be…and should be’ according to Jon Landau. Damn right.

15. Yeasayer – All Hour Cymbals (We Are Free)
‘World music that doesn’t make you want to puke’ according to our only viable music weekly (how about actually looking to the wider world for some more of that?), Yeasayer’s debut was an exhilarating rush of rhythmic and harmonic invention, equal parts Crosby, Stills and Nash and King Crimson. Here is a band set to build their profile considerably in 2008 – very much pursuing their own distinctive path, and creating some rich, positive and intoxicating music in the process. So often do their abundant ideas bear fruit in reality, Yeasayer’s ambitions are lofty but never embarrassing or misguided.

14. John Abercrombie – The Third Quartet (ECM)
John Abercrombie is one of the master guitarists, and ‘The Third Quartet’ is yet another peerless example of his artistry. It’s an evocative, expressive and fluid collection demonstrating both the exemplary technique of the group leader and the combined prowess of his outstanding ensemble. This is elusive, subtle music that takes time to weave its peculiar and haunting web. It creates a distinctive feeling of weightlessness and drifting that is both challenging and satisfying.

13. LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver (DFA/EMI)
James Murphy remains an intriguing proposition – a man who makes hipster music despite appearing defiantly uncool in demeanour. It’s easy to see how Hot Chip have found a happy home on his DFA label. ‘Sound Of Silver’ is a massive improvement on his promising but rather cobbled together debut album. He has absorbed a massive range of music, from the driving Krautrock of Neu! to the primitive grooves of Dinosaur L or ESG, via minimal composers such as Steve Reich. Murphy is astute in unpicking the thorny problem of attempts to regress back to adolescence, emphasising the poignancy that accompanies growing older. Musically, it is minimal but relentless and propulsive – it satisfies both the impulse to dance and the cerebral demand for conceptual thought.

12. Gwilym Simcock – Perception (Basho)
I want to hate Gwilym Simcock. Prodigiously gifted as a composer and soloist, a top class ensemble player, young and distinctively handsome to boot – there’s just too much to envy. Yet ‘Perception’ is such a breathtakingly inspiring debut – theoretically grounded but also full of feeling, freedom and meaningful ideas. The group playing (featuring John Paricelli and Stan Sulzmann amongst other first rate musicians) is invigorating and thrilling, whilst Simcock’s writing is consistently inventive, particularly with time and metre. He’s also a skilled interpreter too, breathing thoroughly new life into his version of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’. He shares a sensibility with the revered American Brad Mehldau in his combination of technical mastery (established through rigorous classical training) with the spontaneity of improvisation. Yet his ballad playing is also supremely sensitive and he has a more playful and exuberant side that Mehldau sometimes lacks. Only the unflattering cover photograph does Simcock a disservice here. To say the future looks bright for him is something of an understatement.

11. The Besnard Lakes – The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse (Jagjaguwar)
A good friend of mine described this as ‘the album the Arcade Fire should have made next’. He has a good point there. Whilst the Arcade Fire opted to amplify their grandiose side, fellow Canadians The Besnard Lakes modestly crafted a slow burning, but ultimately towering second album that has begun to make a deserved international impact for them. With its spy theme and enthralling juxtaposition of progressive arrangements with very unfashionable 70s rock influences, the elaborate, twisting songs here placed the band in its own unique and unconventional space. That their live performances proved devastatingly loud and earth-shaking was a bonus.

10. Radiohead – In Rainbows (W.A.S.T.E./XL)
In a year when British group-based guitar music is notable by its almost total absence from my end-of-year round-up (only The Broken Family Band, Super Furry Animals, Paris Motel and The Twilight Sad make for the other entries), thank goodness for the return of Radiohead. There is no other British rock group working at this level of creativity and ambition. The minimal arrangements of these songs work through creating space as much as sound, and this may eventually stand proud as the most focussed of Radiohead’s post-‘OK Computer’ releases. No longer do they sound like a band merely appropriating a wide range of influences, but rather a living, breathing creative unit subsuming their reference points within a clear and consistent vision. Whilst I’ve been critical of Thom Yorke’s alienation-by-numbers lyrics elsewhere, he excels himself on two unusually personal standouts here – the confessionals ‘House Of Cards’ and ‘Reckoner’. The bonus disc added some more conventional balladry to satisfy less adventurous fans, but also continued the seductive, broadly erotic qualities that dominate the main release (indeed, I pre-empted Yorke himself – he has now called these ‘seduction songs’). With echoes of AR Kane, Talk Talk and Brian Eno, ‘In Rainbows’ built upon some judicious foundations with characteristic invention and audacity.

9. James Blackshaw – The Cloud Of Unknowing (Tompkins Square)
A student of the John Fahey ‘Takoma’ school of guitar playing, James Blackshaw is a homegrown instrumental talent worth celebrating. His sheets and layers of sound create effects that will be more familiar to students of contemporary classical music than folk or rock guitar playing. As a result, ‘The Cloud Of Unknowing’ has a spiritual, prophetic resonance at its heart and is one of 2007’s most unusual and idiosyncratic offerings. It’s actually Blackshaw’s fourth album, and with digital re-releases of the previous three now promised, it looks like a catalogue worth taking the time to explore further.

8. Panda Bear – Person Pitch (Paw Tracks)
As mirthful and mischievous as Animal Collective’s ‘Strawberry Jam’ undoubtedly is, they were trumped by this solo offering from their percussionist in 2007. In fact, this was by some distance the best record yet from the entire Paw Tracks staple. Taking the summer harmonies of Brian Wilson as its starting point, Noah Lennox filtered his infectious, insistent vocal lines through urgent, propulsive rhythms and quirky home studio manipulations. By linking these fragments together, Lennox crafted a song cycle that sounded at turns eerily familiar and purposefully alien. Lennox appeared to be warping something comforting into something unknown and unforgiving. Not to be confused with Seb Rochford’s Polar Bear of course.

7. Robert Wyatt – Comicopera (Domino)
I can’t do much more here than to underline Marcello Carlin’s brilliant exposition on the underselling of this album by professional music critics in Britain (in a similar way, he argues, to the way writers approached ‘The Drift’ by Scott Walker last year). It took Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, in a characteristically erudite press release, to elucidate this album’s sheer brilliance clearly. Robert Wyatt is such a unique and distinctive voice (both literally and figuratively) that it has become all too easy to take him for granted. That much of ‘Comicopera’ emphasises how warm and accessible he can be is therefore no bad thing. Far from being too quirky and idiosyncratic to have a hit, Wyatt can be playful, sincere, warm and affecting. The writing here is incisive and the execution exquisite. Whilst much of the music feels like a statement of personal freedom, Wyatt’s strong sense of humanity and community is also evident and every note is carefully judged and timed. The sudden switch away from the English language represents the clearest expression of political frustration with Western foreign policy yet committed to disc (considerably more eloquent than Neil Young’s hamfisted and overpraised ‘Living With War’, for example). ‘Comicopera’ is a beautiful and disorientating suite charged with as much empathy and insight as anger and rage.

6. Burial – Untrue (Hyperdub)
Disorientating and unsettling, yet also grounded by real emotional depth and a soulful streak, Burial’s second album successfully upgraded the template of his astonishing debut. Although the album is largely wordless, its edited snatches of vocal samples and lingering synth pads combine to say more about a sense of urban dislocation than the self-conscious lyrics of either Thom Yorke or Kele Okereke. ‘Untrue’ is an uneasy but affecting listen to rival Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’ or Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines’.

5. Michael Brecker – Pilgrimage (Heads Up)
What a towering achievement this album is, not least because Brecker effectively kept himself alive whilst terminally ill to complete it. Brecker surrounded himself with a dream line-up (with both Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, a more-than-usually tasteful and expressive Pat Metheny, complemented and completed by the driving union of Jack DeJohnette and John Patittucci), the sterling support no doubt advancing him to the very peak of his own powers. Whilst ‘Pilgrimage’ does not add anything particularly new to the jazz idiom, it expands the existing language with peerless panache and flair. The themes are incomparably strong and memorable, the group dynamic virtually faultless and the improvising strident and powerful. It’s a muscular group performance, but also tender and mournful in all the appropriate places. ‘Pilgrimage’ is an inevitable future classic and, fittingly, one of Brecker’s very best albums.

4. David Torn – Prezens (ECM)
What is this extraordinary noise exactly? Is it jazz? Is it improvised metal? Is it electronica? Frankly, who cares how it’s classified? It’s much more important that it’s terrifyingly original and, by implication, absolutely terrifying. With an unfathomably inspired line up of free improvisers (Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and the world-class drummer Tom Rainey), ‘Prezens’ is brutal, confrontational and provocative all in the best possible way. It’s unpredictable and thrilling, primal yet also devilishly intricate. It’s some way removed from the more serene and meditative sound normally associated with the ECM label. Best of all, it’s an inspired combination of collective improvisation and studio processing that sounds palpably dangerous. It sounds like an auditory hallucination – a graphic and disturbing musical vision of hell.

3. Bjork – Volta (One Little Indian)
The tribal drums that usher in ‘Earth Intruders’ also neatly symbolise the onward march of Bjork’s musical career. Here is an artist who has never looked back and, at least in part through judicious collaborations, has continued to refine, develop and innovate in all aspects of her work, from production values to artwork. After the experiments with vocal effects on ‘Medulla’, ‘Volta’ adopted an earthier strategy, focussing more on rhythm and on that extraordinarily resonant all-female brass section (all the more striking in the moments when beats were abandoned). It also liberally picked and mixed musical styles from around the globe, with Toumani Diabate’s Koura adding depth and Congolese maestros Konono No. 1 making sonic trouble. With her voice frequently at its most uncompromising, this is not Bjork’s most conventionally melodic statement – but then conventional melody has never been her priority. With every release she continues to stretch her mind and her talent, this time synthesising the rigours of modern composition with the primarily sexual impulse of dance and soul music. It was a signpost of the woman’s magisterial talent that the Timbaland produced tracks are arguably the least successful here. Thematically, ‘Volta’ is a defiant and inspiring celebration of love and life, brave in its exhortation to embrace all opportunities and cast aside misgivings.

2. Feist – The Reminder (Polydor)
Has there been a more insightful, compassionate and sympathetic collection of songs in the last ten years? On ‘The Reminder’, Leslie Feist encapsulated the overwhelming, sometimes stifling power of memory on human relationships with nuance, subtlety and grace. The overall sound was stately and refined but never bland (so the Dido comparisons are entirely misleading) - a highly sophisticated confection unafraid to venture into areas of personality and consciousness that most pop songwriters prefer to avoid. It’s a beautifully produced, captivating and powerfully moving record, and that ubiquitous ipod advert at least made sure that we didn’t miss out on her this year.

1. Dirty Projectors – Rise Above (Rough Trade)
Dave Longstreth’s weird and wonderful masterpiece has hardly even been noticed by the British music press. If it were not for his sterling set in support of Beirut at Koko earlier in the year, I may never have even heard this subversive, bold and fearless music. It’s supposedly a re-imagining of Black Flag’s classic ‘Damaged’ album in its entirety. This could so easily have been a grand folly extraordinaire, but Longstreth, retaining the album’s inlay but not the cassette itself from his youth, worked entirely from personal memories and interpretations. Direct flashbacks to that band’s sound are, perhaps as a result, really only apparent in the unexpected bursts of hardcore thrashing that sometimes perforate the meticulously crafted arrangements. There are hints of Afrobeat, country-rock and the avant garde, all melded into a rigorously controlled yet unspeakably thrilling melting pot. It’s both original and radical, making the rest of 2007’s rock music look timid and tepid by comparison.

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