It's nearly the end of the year, which means it's time for lists of the top whatevers of the year to come out. I put together a list of my CDs of the year last December, and I was pretty pleased with the results. So now, while my Japanese 1 students make posters for another hour, I give you the five CDs of 2007 that you really ought to have been listening to.
Even with a new Radiohead album, I don't feel like there was any one standout album that demands to be made the album of the year. I'll list my five CDs in alphabetical order this year instead.
1. Armchair Apocrypha, Andrew Bird. This CD came out in March, during Lent, so I missed it and all of its hype at first. I bought the CD and set it aside while I fulfilled my Lenten vow, only to find that I didn't like it quite as much as I thought I might. (This shouldn't be a surprise to me, since I didn't particularly like The Mysterious Production of Eggs at first, either.) Genuine and I took in a concert of Bird's in May, and while it was fun, we just weren't that familiar with his new album. The more I listen to it, though, the more I really like it. While most albums I really enjoy have two or three standout songs and several good ones, Armchair has, by my count, six standout songs. I like "Fiery Crash" enough to have it on the mix playing at our wedding reception, and I've liked "Heretics" since I downloaded it from Bird's website before the official release of the album. "Dark Matter" is the rocker of the bunch, showing that Bird can cut loose, while "Scythian Empires" is the surprisingly beautiful and gentle song at the end. (It occupies the same spot on Armchair that "MX Missiles" occupies on Eggs.) While Armchair isn't Bird's best album, it is a very good album, and the logical progression from Eggs. It shows him growing up just a little bit, and if growing up means he produces more music like this, I say that's just fine.
2. In Rainbows, Radiohead. I've reviewed this once in depth and once in passing already on this blog, but I'll write a little more with the benefit of hindsight. I think so much emphasis was placed on Radiohead's innovative distribution model (you can have it for whatever price you want!) that the music sort of became lost in the shuffle. And it's amazing music. Radiohead has focused for years on being the most avant-garde and cutting-edge band that their music, while both avant-garde and cutting-edge, suffered a bit. (Don't get me wrong - I adore Kid A.) With In Rainbows, it sounds like the band, for the first time in ages, are actually enjoying themselves. The subtle back and forth action of the band playing off of each other is back, something that we haven't seen since the days of OK Computer. "15 Step" at first sounds like the album will be more of the electronica that has dominated the last three records, but once it breaks into something that's almost soul, you can see the band is headed somewhere new. "Arpeggi/Weird Fishes" has a beautiful cascading guitar part that sucks you right in. "Reckoner" does the same thing with both Ed O'Brien's guitar and Phil Selway's drums. And "Faust ARP," a sort of version of "Blackbird" for the millennial generation, brings back images of "Exit Music (for a film)". It feels like the band is relaxed for the first time in years. Ironic that once they stop trying to make the best album in history, they succeed in making something tremendous.
3. Neon Bible, Arcade Fire. This is another album that I missed during Lent. Right from the get-go, you can tell the album is much darker than its predecessor, Funeral. "Black Mirror," the leadoff track, has dark, brooding guitars that draw you in. Really, the only way into Neon Bible is through "Black Mirror" - the bright, optimistic spots on the record don't have the same impact unless contrasted with that dark opening. "Intervention" is clearly the highlight of the record, with its impressive pipe organ and the soaring voice of Win Butler shouting lyrics like "Who's going to reset the bone?" Yet the climax of the album, in my mind, comes at two points - once during sinister bass strum and delicate bells of "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" ("eating from the ghetto on a hundred dollar plate"), and once, more impressively, during "No Cars Go," in which the band pulls out all the stops for their finale. There are a lot of stops, too - with eight regular members, there's a lot of sound to play with. Neon Bible takes some work to warm up to, but, given time, it's worth the wait.
4. Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem. I initially only bought this album so I could be ready for the joint Arcade Fire-LCD Soundsystem concert Genuine and I went to this September. I'm really glad I did, since it's fantastic. James Murphy delivered on his first album, but on Sound of Silver, he ups the ante. Each song is built around one set of beats, slowly assembling itself into a full-fledged dance tune by the end. That's just like his first album, except that on this album, he seems to be focused on making his songs more polished rather than just loud and fast. He also sounds like he's having fun, too - "North American Scum" is, by any account, the funniest song of 2007 ("And to all of you who still think we're from England/We're like, no"). Even if you aren't a huge fan of dance, this is still worth checking out. The beats are infectious enough to get even the most reluctant listener tapping their toes.
5. The Stage Names, Okkervil River. This was probably one of the most anticipated albums of the year until October, when In Rainbows dropped. Okkervil River take a step back from their brooding, melancholy music of the last few years to release something a bit happier. "Our Life is a Movie, Or Maybe" shows that the band are ready to start playing songs in a major key, and without any mournful lyrics, either. Their penchant for well-researched, hyperliterate songs hasn't abated, though. "Savannah Smiles" is about the death by suicide of Shannon Michelle Wilsey (better known as the porn star Savannah) in 1994. The soft ballad is kinder than you might expect from an egotistical porn star, but the tenderness in the song is deeply touching. "Plus Ones" comes in as the runner up to "North American Scum" for funniest song of 2007. Will Sheff put together a list of numerical references in famous songs and added one to each of them. Lyrics like "no one wants to hear about your 97th tear" are both clever and funny, each building on the last. And yet, it's more than just lyrics. Okkervil River make beautiful music, and this record is probably their most approachable one yet.
It's long, but those are my reviews of the five best albums of the year. And with Christmas coming up, these are great ideas for gifts, if you're looking for something to get someone. (Not me, though. I already own all five of these.) Honorable mention goes to Beirut's The Flying Club Cup and Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, both of which probably would have ended up on this list if I'd heard anything from them.
Happy 2007, everyone. Here's hoping 2008 is as rewarding, musically.