I’ve managed to limit myself to 25 records for the list this year. It worked out pretty conveniently that there were exactly that many that I felt I could endorse wholeheartedly, which also (and this is crucial) I actually listened to a lot. Some of the ones that missed out might very well be better than some that made it, but for one reason or another just didn’t stick with me in the same way.
As always, I’m positive that the instant I post this I will discover something that will make me feel foolish for leaving it off (last year it was the wonderful Little Films from Vanessa Peters), but you have draw a line somewhere and just make the list.
One apology: unlike past years when I wrote all new entries for the end of the year lists, this year I’ve cribbed a lot from my past reviews. The time crunch really got to me this year.
With no further ado…
25. Laura Veirs – Saltbreakers
This one hasn’t sustained itself quite as well as I expected. Her past records were less immediately gratifying, but held subtle pleasures that Saltbreakers can’t quite match. Still, there are some very fine tracks and “Don’t Lose Yourself” remains one of my songs of the decade.
Highlights: Don’t Lose Yourself, Drink Deep, Cast a Hook
24. Stars – In Our Bedroom After the War
I slagged this record a little bit earlier this month, but that doesn’t mean I hated it – it just means I was hoping for something that would set my world on fire and was disappointed to instead get an album that was simply solid. I do stand by my statement that the only track which completely works is the opener. The rest has enormous possibilities, but never quite fulfills them.
Highlights: The Beginning After The End, Take Me to the Riot, Midnight Coward
23. Six Parts Seven – Casually Smashed to Pieces
Warm, joyful, and a sheer pleasure. It’s the first album by them where I haven’t lamented, even a little bit, the lack of vocals. It’s not a major move away from their previous work, but it does move their sound closer and closer to the Platonic ideal of instrumental chamber pop.
Highlights: Stolen Moments, Everything Wrong is Right Again
22. Modest Mouse – We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank
It’s not a bad album and if it came from anyone other than Modest Mouse, I would be pretty excited about it. But compared to the magic, the transcendence that infused everything they did before, I can’t help but wonder what might have been.
My biggest problem is that it just sounds so busy. The thing that used to make Modest Mouse great was the sparseness of the sound. Even when they were tearing your soul to pieces, it was always with jagged edges and guitar shards. This record ends that once and for all. Gone are all the empty spaces, the distance, the jarring gaps. Even the best songs are layered thickly, pregnant with sound.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Spitting Venom,” for example, is wildly different from anything else they’ve done, but that’s what makes it so special. If the whole record had songs of this quality, I really could have fallen in love all over again.
Highlights: Spitting Venom, Missed the Boat
21. Brandi Carlile – The Story
Yet another record that I greatly anticipated, which couldn’t quite live up to my hopes. And once again, that’s more a comment on how much I loved her debut than it is a criticism of this album, which gives a fine display of her amazing voice and contains plenty of solid songs.
Highlights: The Story, My Song
20. Scotland Yard Gospel Choir – Scotland Yard Gospel Choir
Some of the very best fast-paced jangly chamber pop I’ve heard in years. To me, they sound like the band everyone always insists that Sloan is. They’ve got almost everything you could ever want: killer guitar riff that sounds straight out of a late 90s punk record, clever lyrics, handclaps, boy-girl harmonies, and horn solos.
19. Josh Ritter – The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
This is a good record, but it inspires respect more than love. I appreciate the artistry, the tone, and the lyrical allusions but they rarely burrow deep. That said, it’s a testament to Ritter’s songwriting ability that even on a record that goes in directions I could do without, he manages to bring more than enough to the table to leave it comfortably among my favorites for the year.
Highlights: To the Dogs or Whoever, Right Moves, Empty Hearts
18. Pela – Anytown Graffiti
A record that I’ve been listening to for six months but never got around to reviewing. And yet, surprisingly enough, I find it here on my year-end list. Just a plain old rock and roll record: a little bit Springsteen, a little bit Replacements, and a lot of plaintive songs about life, love, and America. It’s in the same vein as The Hold Steady and The Killers – a little more genuine than the former and a lot less flashy than the latter.
It’s the sort of record you don’t feel cool for recommending – too earnest for the hipsters and too sentimental for the rockers – but that all fades away in the face of eleven outstanding songs.
17. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? Potentially the most anticipated release of the year, seen by some as a colossal disappointment, by others as a glorious success. Where do I stand? Well, there’s one glaring weakness. Where Funeral was about dealing with loss of loved ones, Neon Bible is about an entire world gone mad. The problem is that apocalypse is global, but redemption can only be personal. By focusing too much on the former, the few flashes of hope are quashed before they ever get a chance to develop.
That said, when it is good, it’s very good. And the run of songs from “Intervention” through “No Cars Go” matches up with anything else released this year. A little less gloom and a little more pathos and this could have been something truly amazing.
Highlights: (Antichrist Television Blues), Intervention, No Cars Go, Keep the Car Running
16. Trembling Blue Stars – The Last Holy Writer
Their best record yet. Beth Arzy’s voice remains one of the finest instruments on the planet, and few can write as beautiful a song as Bobby Wratten. The release of The Last Holy Writer is the official moment when it was time to stop thinking about the old Sarah Records days and embrace Trembling Blue Stars as their finest achievement to date. To listen to this record is to know how it feels to ride on the wind.
Highlights: Idyllwild (my #1 song of the year), This Once Was an Island, From a Pale Blue Rosary
15. Let’s Go Sailing – The Chaos in Order
I can’t help but use words like pretty and sweet to describe this record, but it would be a shame to leave it at that. There is far more weight here than you might expect on first listen. These are love songs full of nervous tension and sensitive empathy, the sort of music that lives in the place just between wakefulness and a dream.
Highlights: Sideways, Better Off, It’s as Clear
14. Windmill – Puddle City Racing Lights
It’s delicate and euphoric, deeply textured, with lyrics that sound surreal until you dig into them and realize it’s really all about making the mundane seem extraordinary. And then there’s that voice, an ethereal falsetto that combines with the classic combination of chiming piano lines and drums that roll over you like thunder. You could drop the best songs here into the middle of The Soft Bulletin and not skip a beat.
13. Shout Out Louds – Our Ill Wills
It’s the sound of lost days and easy reminiscence, of the reckless energy of youth, of hesitant touches and furtive kisses. Most importantly, it’s the sound of the ill-defined space in between our broken hearts and our truest love.
On this record, love is both transcendent and immanent. It can be observed in the smallest of details, in the way the heart leaps to the throat at the sight of her, the smell of her hair, her fingers interlocked with yours, the pit in your stomach as you remember the lost times and wonder where it all went wrong. However, it is also a universal. Your eyes lose focus and suddenly you touch the hundreds, thousands, millions of other torn souls…each one unique, but all of us looking up in supplication, asking for something we cannot even understand, much less put into words.
It’s impossible, we know, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less. And so all we can do is listen, and remember, and forget…
12. Club 8 – The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Dreaming
I’ve always felt that Club 8 had an amazing talent for conveying seasonal relationships. The same song could feel like a perfect summer song in July and then exemplify the beauty of a long winter night a few months later. This facet of their sound is fully explored on The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Dreaming. On song after song I can hear – all at once – the gentle rays of the spring sun, an idyllic summer afternoon, the leaves of autumn drifting slowly to the ground, and a blanket of winter snow. And most of all you sense the beauty of now – this one moment in time – and how it relates to every other imaginable instant.
11. Kate Nash – Made of Bricks
Full of snark, poor grammar, and an accent that would send Henry Higgins over the edge, Kate Nash might just be the best thing to come out of England in a long time. While I could go on endlessly about the sound, the thing that really draws me in is the lyrics. Awkward people trying to express feelings they can’t put into words (“Birds”), a rambunctious ode to a girl who refuses to speak (“Mariella”), one of the most clever unrequited love songs you’ll ever hear (“We Get On”), and many more.
I think it’s required by law to mention Lily Allen in reviewing this record, and while there is a lot to that comparison, I think there are some important differences. For one, Nash’s pop songs are way more danceable and just plain fun. For another, there is a much stronger emotional core. Sure, many of these songs are packed with sly lyrics and are all kinds of fun, but underneath that you really feel for these folks.
10. Bruce Springsteen – Magic
Probably his best record since Born in the USA. It’s strong from top to bottom unlike The Rising, and it rocks unlike Devils and Dust or Tom Joad. The reckless hopefulness and abandon of Born to Run is still here, but manifested differently. Where the young Bruce was all about the escape, this record is about how hard it can be to come back home. It’s no coincidence that one of the crowning songs is called “Long Walk Home” – in our youth we want to burn away all our ties and find a new place for ourselves. And this is just how it should be. But there comes a time when we have to take up a new burden, and find our way back.
One of the year’s big surprises for me. Not surprising that I liked it (I’ve enjoyed their earlier stuff), but surprising that they could expand their sound so much without losing any of the magic. Their past work was standard (if very good) Swedish bedroom-pop. On Migration, however, they kick open the doors and take their music out to the world. The same twee impulses remain, but they are given a new sheen and fullness as they meld with dance-pop influences, swooping strings, and crashing cymbals. “Subtle Changes” is the real tour de force, but only marginally less powerful are the bubble-infused “The park” and the synth-driven “Final Say.”
8. Miracle Fortress – Five Roses
A real gem of a record that I only got around to picking up this week. It showed up on the “best of” lists for a number of people whose tastes I trust, so I picked it up on eMusic. And the joy I felt listening to it, and realizing that each song was better than the one before is one of the reasons why I love doing this. I finished and then immediately went back to the beginning. And then again. Now, in the past 48 hours I’ve made the full album transit 10 times with no signs of cooling down.
Everyone else seems to be in love with Panda Bear, but my vote for the best dreamy pysch-pop is Miracle Fortress all the way. Like Panda Bear, it’s impossible to talk about this album without mentioning Brian Wilson. Still, I don’t feel too bad about falling into cliches given how shamelessly (some might even say joyfully) he lifts from the Beach Boys ouvre. In particular, “Maybe Lately” directly transcribes the vocal melody from “Don’t Worry Baby” – finding craggy landscapes buried in even the most simple and heartfelt love song.
One can’t help but point out a few other references: namely Brian Eno, My Bloody Valentine. Which should give you an idea of the sound, but if Eno is about musical atmospheres, Miracle Fortress is far more about a far more intimate space. Eno wants to touch the universe, Van Pelt seems more content to explore the way a drop of water glistens on the end of an icicle, dusty windowpanes on a long bus ride, the way a nervous smile transforms into pure unadulterated joy, the feel of the clouds. Some wispy and light, so delicate that the slightest breeze will tear them apart. Others voluminous, like mountains in the sky reaching ever higher, higher. Amidst it all, we drift unburdened by gravity. Beneath us, the remnants of a storm, and beyond…a shimmering rainbow of sound.
Finally, I loved the description of this album at Chromewaves so much that I just have to lift it. He calls the record “a peek inside Graham Van Pelt’s wonderful, technicolour imagination where it’s a perpetual endless summer populated by robots.” And how.
7. The Sinister Turns – Turn to the Left EP
I’ll admit I cheated a bit on this one. It was out in 2006, but since it’s still entirely self-released and I didn’t find out about them until this year, I feel no guilt about including it.
This is piano-driven pop to batter the senses and lift the soul, some of the finest hooks in years, and mighty clever lyrics to boot. Some music takes itself very seriously and attempts to answer deep questions. Other (usually far better and more important) music accepts that life is complicated beyond our capacity to understand, but that when it all comes down you have to be able to find a way to smile. The Sinister Turns make the latter, and do a very fine job of it.
Highlights: all five songs are very good, but my favorite is The Last Time
6. Efterklang – Parades
Imagine if the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack was composed by Brahms. Or if Sufjan was actually five manic Danes. Or, because it’s that time of year, a twisted Christmas carol about vampires and the end of the world – all bells and glockenspiels and horns. It’s apoplectic and apocalyptic, the sound of abandoned streets and snowstorms that blanket the earth, of eyes shining the darkness. It’s Sigur Ros as seen through a thick pane of glass, warped and flecked enough to make you wonder if the world on the other side is even real or just a trick of the light.
But it is also beautiful, organic, intimate. The strongest instrument throughout is the voice, rising in angelic choirs, lost deep in the fog but calling out nonetheless. And the marriage of the horns (on, say, “Mirador”) with a wordless chorus is enough to secure a human connection through even the darkest of nights.
And when you reach the climactic escape of the final two minutes on album closer “Cutting Ice To Snow” it’s like walking into a new world, untouched and bright, where the sun shines down on a spring thaw.
5. The National – Boxer
This is a good record made spectacular by the interplay between Matt Berringer’s world-weary baritone and some of the finest percussion heard in years. It lacks a fiery climax like “Mr. November” but this is a feature rather than a mistake. Where Alligator was all about peaks and valleys, Boxer is a study in slowly building pressure. As the album concludes you can only wonder whether it is a dam on the verge of bursting or a series of knots being drawn ever tighter.
Highlights: Apartment Story, Fake Empire, Start a War
4. Palomar – All Things, Forests
This record is a triumph of tension and release, a battle between effortless pop and thunderous guitars, between verses that hold onto a minor key with all their strength against choruses and guitar lines just aching to be set free, between madness and genius.
Given that, it’s fitting that it immediately follows Boxer. However, while that one rides the tension from start to finish without resolution or release, Palomar are more than happy to blow it all up and set you free. And in that instant when it all breaks loose, it’s all the more satisfying because of the wait, like the moment when you finally give in and scratch a mosquito bite.
More than almost any other record this year, this record has a sharpness, a intricateness of composition that makes you come back for more. That makes All Things, Forests is one of those rare beasts – an album I loved from the first listen, but which still sounds better each time I hear it.
3. Okkervil River – The Stage Names
Their last effort, Black Sheep Boy, was a novel, a descent into madness, deliberately melodramatic and full of characters who stretched the limits of reason. The Stage Names, however, is much more a book of short stories, radically different in tone but all moving toward the same premise. Indeed, the apparent ease with which they roll out songs that shift from rambunctious to elegant without a hitch is simply unparalleled.
I think, on the evidence of this record, their past work, and their explosive live show, you’d have to say that Okkervil River is the best band on the planet right now.
2. Tegan and Sara – The Con
In another year, this could easily have been #1. I love the earlier work from the Quin sisters, but this is their crowning achievement. There’s “The Con,” a three minute earthquake of pop hooks and harmonies. There’s “Nineteen” which makes me believe I can fly. There’s “Dark Come Soon” which (as mentioned in the top songs of 2007 list) contains one of the finest moments of music in the last decade. There’s “Relief Next to Me” with it’s strangely triumphant chorus: “But I promise this, I won’t go my whole life, telling you I don’t need.” There’s the redemptive power of “Burn Your Life Down.” There’s “Hop a Plane” – as perfect a slice of breakneck, guitar-driven pop you’ll ever hear. And so much more.
This is a record to be savored, a New Wave masterpiece, and far more complicated than most critics will give them credit for. It’s charming beyond belief, sensitive, swaggering, anxious, and compassionate – most of them simultaneously. It is the sound of coming to terms with a world that may never make sense and which is always on the verge of slipping away. It’s also simply an album about love, all the good and all the bad.
1. Cloud Cult – The Meaning of 8
Rarely has the feeling of a whole world coming apart at the seams been captured so perfectly. The best moments engulf you with cellos, trumpets and flutes, staccato guitar bursts, waves of sound that crash around you, a caressing dissonance. Your heart rises, you discover a lump your throat and your eyes go distant. This is music that makes you believe in a greater truth, a meaning that transcends our limited experience. Call it God, call it the universe, call it what you will, it is the reason why we continue to struggle, to find ourselves within the madness. It’s captured perfectly in the repeated lines from “Take Your Medicine:” “Remind, remind that it’s bigger than me / Dissolve, dissolve into evergreens.”
Even when the touch is light, there is a choral feel, as if it is a shared experience. Still, for such busy songs, there is a tremendously organic feel. You cannot force yourself onto the music, you must let it reveal itself. If you have the patience, it will blossom and grow. Because each piece fits so seamlessly into the next, you can almost get lost inside them.
This is a very weird record, and very emotional. While it has more than enough great hooks and beautiful melodies to be enjoyed simply for that, to truly experience it you must give yourself up to the deaf girl, the Alien Christ, the lamentations and exhortations, the death marches, the numerology, the mythology. And when you feel them completely, you realize that they were there all along. It just took this record to give them a voice.
When I first reviewed it, I compared The Meaning of 8 to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Nine months later, I stand by that completely. This is, plain and simple, one of the best records I have heard in my life.
And with that, we bid a fond farewell to 2007. Now, when does the new Magnetic Fields come out so we can get started on 2008?