Nerdbound’s Somewhat Belated Top Albums of 2007

January 18, 2008

2007 has ended, and with it, I’ve lost my chance to listen to 2007 albums while they’re still fresh and new. This is a problem because 2007 was a year packed with music in a way that many recent years haven’t been. It felt like almost every top band in independent music (broadly construed) had an album that got released this year. It was my first year really attempting to track down every release I thought might be interesting and listen to them all. I failed, but it was a noble effort.

So I’m going to jot down my top albums of the year. There are a few caveats. For one, this was one of the strongest years in recent memory for metal, yet I did not get much metal onto this list. My listening habits have changed, and metal releases that would ordinarily have enthralled me seemed more distant this year. Additionally, the year was so strong for independent rock, that even fantastic metal releases did not make the cut.

Further, this is all just my opinion, and my opinion is biased by a love of experimental shit and angry motherfuckers. There’s a variety of stuff here, including some pretty twee pop, but that’s the exception not the rule. Of course, I would argue that I’m right to enjoy experimental and badass music. But some people don’t and they should not hate me for this.

Without further ado…

30. Jens Lekman — Night Falls Over Kortedala

TWEE. But I don’t hate it, which means that if you’re the right sort of person, this is your album of the year. This album was not made for me, or for people even vaguely like me (death to capitalism! jk), but I can still appreciate it for its craftsmanship and the little pop moments that hit me with hooks which affect me even as I groan…

29. Deerhunter — Cryptograms

I gather that the history of the record explains its total inconsistency of mood and sound. The record was done in a couple recording sessions, each with very different goals. The first half of the record alternates between hard-hitting experimental rock and ambient noise. The second half sounds like gentle psychedelic rock. Anyway, the fact that the album is a mess does not prevent its being brilliant. The Fluorescent Grey EP is even better, actually (I didn’t put EP’s on this list), but this has “Cryptograms” and “Octet,” their best songs. I’m really looking forward to more from these guys, because I feel like with a bit more consistency, this would be my favorite record. Although, actually, I’m not sure if they want to make records with more consistency, or if they want to make my favorite record. Still, whatever they do next is going to be cool.

28. Blitzen Trapper — Wild Mountain Nation

A whirlwind trip through a bunch of different styles. Eclectic and always interesting, it’s hard to say what about it makes it a success other than that it continually surprises you with a new trick. It’s just a band getting together and sounding like they’re having a lot of fun and have kinda forgotten if they’re aping Pixies or Southern rock. Sweet.

27. Bon Iver — For Emma, Forever Ago

Superficial analysis: It’s acoustic folk music with the loneliness jacked up to 11. It echoes a lot. The falsetto vocals are haunting. Pretty melodies galore. But no, seriously, it’s one of the few albums that reminds me of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon without the comparison immediately making me laugh.

26. Sunset Rubdown — Random Spirit Lover

The first 4-5 tracks are pretty standard indie pop. Higher quality than you might expect, really catchy, but they’re not phenomenal. Then things start getting really weird. The music takes off, gaining a dream-like quality and forgetting itself and its limitations. The arrangements cease making any sense at all, instruments break the flow in surprising ways, and yet by doing so create a greater flow, an overarching sense of… mystery? Only, it’s all, like, in march time. Um… I don’t really understand this album, but it’s definitely good…

25. Radiohead — In Rainbows

Duh. “All I Need” and “Reckoner” would be enough by themselves to put this on the list. I will not try to say anything about Radiohead.

24. Jay-Z — American Gangster

Again, I’m seriously unqualified to talk about Jay-Z. All I know is that this record’s pretty catchy. Makes me smile.

23. The Besnard Lakes — The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse

This one has jumped all over my list, from the bottom to the top and down and up… Here’s the problem: It’s phenomenally memorable, with moments that are just brilliant, and I keep finding myself going back to it. Also, a lot of its awesomeness is due to really long arcs: crescendos to enormous climaxes. That’s all very cool. But I’ve got enough musical ADD that I feel my mind fighting the artists, wanting those brilliant moments a little sooner than they happen. The tension built up here can be phenomenal, and I’m going “RELEASE, DAMN IT”. Of course, that means that when it finally explodes, it’s sublime. Anyway, music this good deserves a more patient listener than me.

22. Yeasayer — All Hour Cymbals

The closest thing the year had to a new release by TV on the Radio. They got the whole ‘world music + indie rock’ thing down, and they sound fuckin’ celebratory and spiritual. It’s a strangely relaxing album too, despite a strange kind of tension running through it. The highs here are extraordinarily high. “Get in the Sunrise” and “2080” are shockingly good.

21. Panda Bear — Person Pitch

You have to listen to this record multiple times. I listened to it at least three times with it falling completely cold each time before it even started to open up to me. It’s still a tough record for me to parse. But I’m now officially in love with the first four tracks, and not just individually, but the way they flow together. I’ve actually tried to listen to “I’m Not” before and failed to enjoy it, but it always makes sense following “Bros”. This is another record which I feel suffers unfairly due to my lack of patience… But I enjoy the challenge.

20. Burial — Untrue

Just listened to this on a plane. It’s such fantastic travel music, although the noise from the plane interfered with it a little. Really, it’s walking music, for late at night. It’s like the sound of lonely voices in the rain. Darkness and uncertainty reign. But when I say it like that, I think of what darkness meant for pre-moderns: Think big predators and muscular men doing battle. This is about darkness in the modern world: There’s nothing to fear, really, except that you won’t ever meet someone to love you back.

19. Menomena — Friend and Foe

The music here is bursting with ideas. The piano line in “Wet and Rusting”. All the horns. And “Evil Bee”, which is the standout track. Each track develops in a really weird way, due to the method of song construction: Everything is a loop which gets turned on or off. What other elements are present in the music recontextualizes each line, so that sometimes you hear a musical tune, and then it’s repeated, sounding entirely different. Creative as fuck.

18. Parts and Labor — Mapmaker

A friend of mine listened to this and said that it was too ‘post-something’, a little unsure what it was post-. I kinda have to agree, while still noting that I love the album. “Fractured Skies” pretty much captures the album: It’s fractured and disoriented, but always looking up. Drums are fast and furious, and the whole band sounds like they’re having a great time doing whatever it is they’re doing. And somehow there’s nothing cooler than a band that sounds like they’re making up what it means to be a band as they go along.

17. Les Savy Fav — Let’s Stay Friends

A great rock album, which is surprisingly universal for a band which I usually think of as a fringe indie Fugazi-aping sort of band. Great pop melodies anchored by strong rhythm work and guitars. “Patty Lee” is the best track here, with its ringing guitar line, but it’s all pretty consistent.

16. Holy Fuck — LP

I could swear I’ve heard this before, not because it sounds like other music, but because it’s the sound my id makes. Seriously, there’s something really primal about this music. Which makes sense, as I guess all their music is improvised and then edited. They just grab a bunch of keyboards and noise generators and see what happens. I kinda really want to see these guys live now (and they are coming to San Francisco! With A Place to Bury Strangers!). Anyway, the sound is raw and powerful and makes me want to beat on my desk whenever I hear it. That and “Lovely Allen” is fantastically beautiful.

15. The Shocking Pinks — Shocking Pinks

A great laid-back, slacker sort of album. Reminds me of Pavement classics like “Here,” and like Pavement, the album is very varied. There’s some light shoegaze influence too, and I gather that they do a bunch of dance stuff too, which is why they’re running with the DFA. But that isn’t largely what’s on this album, which is fantastic comfort music even when it surprises. The singer’s voice is really… warm, contrasting with the often icy (and occasionally confrontational) guitars. I don’t usually enjoy albums that sound like they’re about the singer’s sad sad feelings, y’know? So the fact that I like this one definitely argues in its favor: It’s emotional without being morose.

14. Muscles — Guns Babes Lemonade

“Sweaty” is easily one of my favorite tracks of the year. I can easily expound for quite some time on just how good I think it is. Its use of dissonance and vocal harmonies is absolutely unique. But anyway, the whole album is full of joy and hurray. It’s a gigantic celebration of good things like ice cream, unity, and love. Glorying in its own dumbness and maximalism, it’s easy to miss how smart it is. I’ve been noticing more and more people talking about how criticism is overrated: What’s underrated is appreciating good things for their good bits. This album is like that, reminding us that no matter how smart we may be, we still like happy things, and that’s damn cool.

13. Kanye West — Graduation

No filler. Kanye’s easy to like. There’s nothing very deep here to discuss, but there shouldn’t be either. Just a bunch of singles that are enjoyable and occasionally shockingly good. “Flashing Lights” is a masterpiece in my opinion, although others prefer other tracks here. But I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t like something about this music. Universal in the best sense of the word.

12. Iron & Wine — The Shepherd’s Dog

I never much liked Iron & Wine: I had kinda lumped them in with all the many bands that are trying to do more and more acoustic folk music than anyone could ever need. But here, they sound like they got a band together and decided to experiment with a breadth of cultural and musical influences that I did not expect. Unlike a lot of folk music, it doesn’t sound generic, and doesn’t sound ‘pleasant.’ It goes places, sees things, enjoys itself. I’m gonna have to go back and listen to their older material and see if I like it more. Regardless, this is good stuff.

11. Animal Collective — Strawberry Jam

Speaking of bands where I did not always enjoy their older material (although here for the opposite reasons)… I always respected Animal Collective, but never really loved them. Insert a generic statement or two here about how when bands try to be experimental, sometimes their experiments don’t work. Seriously, these guys are all over the place, with “Banshee Beat,” some great pop songs, and a lot of WTF. But this album is a cohesive statement with new inventions like intelligible lyrics. And I totally connect with it, especially songs like “For Reverend Green” and “Fireworks.” Nor is the album a cop-out to accessibility: It’s only accessible relative to Animal Collective, but is still doing something radically new.

10. Liars — Liars

Liars sound different on every record, but have been pretty consistently brilliant. Here they sound like an angrier Jesus and Mary Chain, who are very in right now (Scarlett Johansson sang with them during their reunion, The Magnetic Fields are trying to sound like them, I’m about to reference them again 5 albums down the list, etc.). But they don’t just sound like the JAMC, they also sound like themselves, and that means that they are pissed off, and beating tribal drums, and making layers of cacophonous dadaist noise. Frankly, the newest thing to their sound on this album is not the occasional JAMC-aping bit and murky production, but the revelation that they can be laid-back a la “Houseclouds,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “Protection.” That and the badass “Clear Island”, which I have a serious crush on.

9. Future of the Left — Curses

“Violence solved everything” is the mission statement of this album. Violence is the modus operandi: Shock the listener with that great post-punk sense of disorientation. Something is not right. Solving everything is perhaps an overstatement, but solving SOMEthing, that’s the goal. There are people who don’t want things to be solved, hence the violence, but don’t doubt the good intentions. These guys sound like total assholes, but they’re assholes because they have to conflict with the rest of mankind to make things better. Well, I’m not sure about that really. Maybe it’s more a rationalization than a rationale. Not important. The point is that this is a catchy-as-fuck glorification of violence and everything bad for you. Did I mention that it’s really funny? And wants to fuck capitalism? Of course I love this.

8. El-P — I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

This album is a masterpiece of production fitting the mood. The artist wants you to feel paranoid and tense. So he makes a record that is abrasive and cacophonous and messy. It makes sense, but no one has done it quite like this, and it’s not what I expect from hip-hop, where often production is squeaky clean. This album is fucked up. Funny too. But mostly fucked up. “Habeas Corpses” “I found love on a prison ship” “go on a raping spree” fucked up. Sometimes things are better, sometimes they’re worse, but they’re inevitably going to Hell in the long run. A beautiful sort of sentiment.

7. LCD Soundsystem — Sound of Silver

This is a hard one to place on a list because it’s so uneven. “Someone Great” and “All My Friends” are clear classics, and among the best songs of the year. Other tracks (especially “Get Innocuous”) are great. But still other tracks are just not that special. Without the two tracks mentioned at the beginning of this review, the album would be nothing at all. But I’m not rating that album, I’m rating an album that includes those two tracks, and any album like that is going to stand the test of time.

6. Electrelane — No Shouts No Calls

This album is so underrated, it’s obscene. Electrelane here totally step out from the shadow of Stereolab and create a masterpiece of little moments: Simplicity and beauty are contrasted with droning guitar work in surprising ways. This is easily the most feminine album on the list, and it’s a deep embarrassment to me that I like it as much as I do. But shit, “In Berlin” is one of the most gorgeous pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Usually, I hear a piece where singers sing “You are all that I love/You are all that I need/You are all that I long for…” and other plaintive lines and think ‘oh, music for Jr. High girls to masturbate to. Cool.’ At best, I think ‘not for me, but I could see how someone else would like it.’ Not here. Here, I have to admit that I really want to fall in love with the singer.

I think that the reason is that the album perfectly mixes the desires of each gender. There’s some research out there somewhere indicating that women love melodies, and guys love harmony and rhythm. The Stereolab/rock influence means that there’s harmony and rhythm and always something interesting going on here, but the melodies are gorgeous too. And the album confuses what exactly the melody/harmony is, with many interlocking melodies and sections. So anyway, the result is that I like it for a feminist reason that’s better (I hope) than ‘see, women can rock too’. Music is male-dominated, but I feel this album provides a glimpse into what a gender-neutral music world might look like. And it’s a damn good world.

5. A Place to Bury Strangers — A Place to Bury Strangers

When shoegaze happened in the 90’s, it was actually kinda punk. It’s really hard to remember that: I tend to remember Loveless and think of beautiful pop melodies hidden behind layers of static and huge production budgets. Most of the people doing neo-shoegaze today seem to remember shoegaze much like I do (hell, see Blonde Redhead below), forgetting the Isn’t Anything‘s of the world. But A Place to Bury Strangers are not just punk, they’re fucking metal! They’re fucking industrial! They’ve got a pop melody in there somewhere, for sure. But the obscuring static is not beautiful lush static, it’s pummeling static that will break you like a twig. I think it was Pitchfork that mentioned Ministry, and I have to agree that that’s the reference to make. Really, the Jesus and Mary Chain would be the primary influence, except that where JAMC merely shock and awe, this shit kills.

If this were a list of what music this year excited me the most, this would win by far. It’s their debut, though, so I’ll get to hear a lot more from them, which excites me to no end. If they grow from here, they’re going to become one of my favorite bands ever. Even if this is their high water mark, I still fucking love it. “To Fix the Gash in Your Head” is my most-listened track of the year (by far) because it has both depth and immediacy. The first breakdown into static and destruction is so powerful, it blows my mind every time I listen to it. It makes me want to dance a kind of nihilistic death dance. Fuck yeah.

4. !!! — Myth Takes

This album’s pop hooks immediately made it one of my most-listened albums of the year. Before “Myth Takes”, I had been used to the idea that !!! were bad at making albums: Always too much filler — a few shockingly good singles and a bunch of trash. This album changes all that. While “Heart of Hearts” and “Yadnus” are powerful dance tracks, “Must Be the Moon” and “A New Name” are pure pop, “All My Heroes Are Weirdos” has become something of an anthem for me (as might be guessed from the title), and “Bend Over Beethoven” is simply one of the best things that !!! have ever done.

The music has gone through the full pop music trajectory for me. At first, it was new music, and thus the simple hooks were exciting. Then, it was familiar music, and the depth and details of the tracks made me happy. Eventually, I had overplayed everything, and the hooks seemed distant instead of primal and immediate. The shocking thing, though, is that even now, I hear new things every time I listen. !!! are fucking smart, so each line, each hook, each detail, appeals not only to the body but also to the brain. Thus, they have succeeded at what they have always been trying to do: Making really intelligent music glorifying idiocy and good times. It’s the sonic equivalent of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, where “Be excellent to each other and party on dudes!” becomes the founding insight upon which all of our future society will be based. Yeah, that’s a stoner mentality. But what else would form the basis of a utopia? Stupidity can be smart, and here !!! put that theory into practice.

3. Blonde Redhead — 23

This album redefines the word over-produced. Every human element seems secondary to the creation of a beautiful atmosphere, a perfect sonic universe. I can see why Pitchfork ignored it. Its artistic project is so different from most music. But it succeeds: It creates something so beautiful that it’s jaw-dropping. It’s no Loveless but it definitely begs the comparison in both production values and in the sense that it’s creating something where Art transcends the merely human. It’s not Loveless because it’s not as deep: It’s all surfaces, immediate impressions, hooks…

I hate making Loveless comparisons by the way: shoegaze was more than that one album goddammit. But I mention it here because I feel like Blonde Redhead were actually trying for that: Previous albums were looser and punker. This is an attempt to make a fucking statement. And it’s gorgeous and moving.

2. Shining — Grindstone

Weirdest album of the year. Yay. Utterly unique. In a nutshell, it’s a record that understands both the appeal and the joke of metal. Because it understands the appeal, it includes big jarring riffs, drama, buildups, tension, etc. Because it understands the joke, it includes little jazzy piano and bell interludes, and sometimes lets the tension release in ways that deliberately fall flat just for fun. Reminds me of what Kant has to say about the sublime. No joke, but I’m not going to talk about pretentious bullshit here, I swear. Anyway, it basically always works, which is more than you can say of 99% of prog records, and 99.999% of records which think they have a musical sense of humor.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything else that I could compare favorably to early Boredoms, but mostly because I can’t think of much else that I would compare to early Boredoms. This album makes me wonder if there’s more space there than I thought for music to deal with emotions like immaturity and bombast without falling flat. On my first few listens, it was the first three tracks that I loved best, because they were relatively straightforwardly exciting. Now, though, I’m increasingly drawn to “Psalm”. What an amazing piece of music. But every listen to the album reveals the reason why some track I used to find forgettable is there. They’re all so fucking deep, and there’s little I like more than being deep about immaturity.

1. Of Montreal — Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

It’s my album of the year, but explaining why is difficult due to its sheer obviousness. It’s a great pop album with copious musical creativity. And it’s a shitload of fun: Melodies that stick with you, lots of rhythmic action, etc. But it’s more than that. A couple reasons why: First, the music isn’t just about relationships, drugs, religion, and everything else, it’s also consistently clever about such topics. It has a point of view, and is unafraid to share it (“oh, the church is filled with losers / psycho or confused!”) and the views make a bit of sense. I saw an interview with Kevin Barnes where (I forget exactly what he said) he talked about wanting pop music that’s more daring to advocate new lifestyles and such. I mean, the dude performed naked. What I’m trying to say is that the music is consistent in its worldview: It wants you to use love and relationships and whatever else to achieve fulfillment in defiance of tradition. And that’s a fucking cool worldview: Neither the pussy free love of the hippies or the confrontational fuck-you hate of the punks. Empowering.

Second, there’s “The Past is a Grotesque Animal.” 12 minutes of the singer overcome with tension and sadness making vague allusions to art as he describes how his relationship fell apart. Has to be heard to be believed, but it works. The lyrics hit really hard, and the music prevents any emotional release until the very end. A few samples of brilliance: “The sun is out / It melts the snow that fell yesterday / Makes you wonder / Why it bothered.” (Beautiful metaphor for a relationship that’s over.) “It’s so embarrassing to need someone like I need you / How can I explain? / I need you here / And not here too.” “We want our film to be beautiful / Not realistic.” The rest of it is similarly brilliant. Maybe even more so, in context. And its charisma carries it.

But mostly, the great thing about the album is that every song sounds like what other albums wish their singles could sound like. Tracks that I didn’t love on first listen are better than I thought. Tracks I loved on first listen are better than I thought. Everything works. Creativity is present in everything: the lyrics, songcraft, and performance. Don’t get put off by the squeaky vocals, like I was at first, and it’ll blow your fucking mind.

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