05 January 2008

puttin' 07 to bed (first yawn)

been in minor brow-wrinkling panic mode here for the last little bit, trying to sort out how best to cap off a year when i very possibly heard more music than any other year - according to my running tally i bought/got/acquired 344 physical records this year (most of them CD albums, though that figure includes LPs and EPs and whatnot too) - over a third of them (117) within the last three months, october-december (versus 65 over the same period last year, though there wasn't quite so dramatic an uptick for the year as a whole.) of which i'm going to guess somewhere between a quarter and a third were 2007 releases. and then there were the digital records - i started downloading torrents for the first time in '07, and heard enough albums that way to utterly clog up my laptop (not a few of which i later purchased on CD, thank you very much.)

so i can't tell if my apathy to conclusive listmaking this time around is reflective of there not being as many albums i felt truly passionate about, or just the result of having had way too much intake to process in a meaningful way, or simply an indication that my 2007 music experience doesn't neatly in list format - specifically, i have no obvious #1. i'm willing to accept any and all of these explanations - and there are plenty of other ways to sum up our year of the double agent, some of which i have already executed (see the top of the side bar for new years round-up mixness...more on that soon)

but i still feel like i owe the world (or, more honestly, my future self) a list. and if any given album stood out from that mass enough for me to consider it here, it must be pretty good or at least interesting. so here's a list. i didn't make this order up but it actually seems to work out about right:

the Top Ten (+ 1) Albums of 2007

1. (tie) Aly + AJ - Insomniatic
Britney Spears - Blackout
Devon Sproule - Keep Your Silver Shined
LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
Low - Drums and Guns
6. (tie) Radiohead - In Rainbows
Sally Shapiro - Disco Romance
8. (tie) Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Tracey Thorn - Out of the Woods
10. (tie) The Good The Bad and the Queen
They Might Be Giants - The Else/Cast Your Pod to the Wind

ties cheap? maybe you say, but forced comparison of different beasts does little to help anyone either. let's just say this covers my #1 rock album of the year, my #1 pop album of the year, my #1 songwriter album of the year, my #1 dance album of the year, and my #1 art album of the year. and then a couple confused close seconds (art/rock? dance/pop?) and then two evenly-matched though divergent pairs of steadfast old friends who delivered yet again.

and again...with cover art reviews!

nice one, actually. the photo doesn't do much for the girls themselves (though, um, it's way better than this), and i'm not sure about that silly gothic font they're using for their names, but the overall concept and composition works surprisingly well - i like how huge the moon is. and it's cute that they're crouching on top of road cases (hadn't noticed that before.) the general vibe i get is of the michalkas as were-people or, maybe more likely, cat-burglars, but given the cases and their no-nonsense black outfits they could be stagehands/roadies.

i must say something too about the title. it took me a while to warm up to this album (and i'm still gonna hold off on buying it until the deluxe edition gets used, which might mean a year off - unless of course i happen to stumble across a copy with "blush" - bah, most of the best tracks from their last album were only on the deluxe ed, and i won't get fooled again.) one problem was that the first mp3 i got of "potential break-up song" strangely omitted include the del shannon sample, so it took me a while to realize that it featured a very smartly lifted lick from one of my absolute all-time favorite songs (on the other hand, a similar realization didn't entirely do wonders for my opinion of "beautiful girls," though i like that song okay.) i think the moment that it finally fully clicked for me, though, was when i read their definition of "insomniatic" (which has made it into urban dictionary if not into the parlance) and realized that it was not (just) an annoyingly over-clever and apparently meaningless album title, but (also) an apt and actually-clever neologism for a phenomenom that i in fact experience quite frequently.

[the title track is still one of my least favorite songs, however. best track, hands down - or at least the one that's been ruling my headspace for several solid weeks - is "if i could have you back."]

so much and not enough has been written and thought about this album... but the cover is sadly one of the least inspiring things about it. it's not awful - i quite like the color scheme, actually, and the font is nifty if not entirely appropriate. and, i guess, it's somewhat suitably garish and disorienting (what's with that zebra-print image in the background?) but they could have pushed it even more in that direction. mostly it's the photo of brit that doesn't do it for me - that silly hat (which she is wearing in every single photo in the booklet) and the blank expression that captures none of the intensity of her presence on the album (even its intense blankness!)

the musical brilliance of this chef d'œuvre and the recent tumultuous complexification of britney's public presence aside, i can't help but wondering what things would have been like if this had come closer to the beginning of the year, just post her divorce from k-fed, when everybody was rooting for her and she seemed poised to reign supreme in 2007 (that is, in a different way from how she eventually actually did.) given the generally positive attention this record has received (from non 'net-pervs, even) as is, i can only imagine how tremendously it might have been received with more fully open arms.

[best track: "heaven on earth." but i like 'em all.]

haven't seen this on any lists but mine, which of course is not much a surprise (her last one did sneak onto some rolling stone writer's top then, though, and she got a glowing writeup in AMG, so somebody must have heard it.) that's ok - well, i mean it's a crying shame, but i don't mind getting to have her to myself for the time being, and sharing her with my lucky lucky friends.

this cover is funny - i don't really understand why she used this picture - it's nice enough, but doesn't exactly scream album cover (which is probably the point - it just looks like any old snapshot.) i guess it does a decent job of capturing how gawjess and elfin devon is in person. i don't know who her friends are. one of them's pregnant. i always think it's a dressing room but it's actually a bedroom. the retro nods (sepia tone photo, song titles on the cover) are effectively understated, not (deliberately) campy like this. nice fontwork too. oh-kay devon.

[best track? well the title song is the obvious pick, but "let's go out" is ruling me more at the moment.]

keep your silver shined indeed. sounded like the album of the year the moment i put it on. rightly so - because it obviously is. at least, of somebody's year. maybe not mine (not sure.) i still wish it was better - not that it's bad, at all at all, but simply because these days lcd soundsystem seem capable of just about anything, which means they'd have been capable of making this even even better. a couple more standouts in the back half. a little less tossed-off sounding of a lead single. something to really pull it into focus. does that make any sense? maybe if i'd managed to see them live (i did find out about their free myspace show in philly in the nick o time, but it was the day my mom was in town....)

oh yeah, the cover. if that's the best we can do for iconic these days i guess it'll have to do. the writing's on the floor. i like that it's the floor. i like that it's (maybe?) a studio shot. hmm.

[best track: "someone great," first last and forever. my single of the year, unless it's "lipgloss".]

okay, now, see? this was supposed to be my number one, no problem, no ?s askd. (well, yknow, when i got over being gaga for gagaga it was supposed to, which was obviously gonna happen.) i did place it at #1 in both my pazz'n'jop and idolator ballots, but i didn't feel quite great about it. what went wrong?

that cover sure ain't helping. frankly low have managed exactly one great album cover in their career (for things we lost in the fire, and they're not getting any better at it.) yeah, i know, minimalism is cool (just ask the field, whose cover i actually did like, perhaps hypocritically, possibly more than i actually loved the album), and the book packaging format is a good in theory (the package design is fairly nice, actually, though it feels a little paltry in your hands.) and yes i have to admit that this particular shade of whitish off-grey, with the smudges and the faux-fabric texture and the grainy type does fit the bleakness and sparsity of this album. but it just doesn't make a statement.

which is really poor planning because the music contained on the cd does absolutely have something to say, but it's threatened to be drowned out by the devastated monochromy of the cover art and the flat detachment of the title and the inexplicably offputting vocal panning. the whole thing just resonates barren desolation to the extent that it's no wonder it was (at first genially commended and then) generally overlooked.

and yes, there is some serious barren desolation here - it's all over the opening track, "pretty people," which is probably the most frightening and uncomfortable thing i heard all year - a bracing and perhaps necessary tone-setter, but hardly the way i'd expect my album of the year to begin. it sure ain't the unapologetic sirens'n'boom-bap'n'moaning that kickstarted "turn it up" and paris last year, or the a cappella lead-in (redolent of the first three elvis costello albums!) to "you and your memory" (amusingly literal video re-enactment here) and the sunset tree before that. nor, even, is it the glorious "poopy bass" and grunge-friendly menace of "monkey" or the glacial, crushing, ethereal "(that's how you sing) amazing grace."

but but but - get beyond that (easy enough - just skip past track 1 to the gorgeous "belarus" - blasphemy whatever) and this is far from a monochromatic album, even though the basic palette (drum loops, atmospheric scufflings, "treatments," and high hardpanned lonely lovely low-vox) is fairly relentless and minimal. still, there's sweetness here, and hope and anger and sympathy and soul-searching - truly, there's just so much emotion, it aches and it breathes and it wears you out, which is another reason this is not an easy album to get through - and serious beauty and beautiful serious and, huh-yup, there's humor too.

[mostly that's "hatchet," which is in the running for my favorite song (qua song, whatever that means) of 07, in either album or remixed "optimimi" form, though as a favorite track on this album i might have to side with "dragonflies." there's also the tremendous closing one-two of "murderer" and "violent past" (this is one of those albums that builds up to a finale, rather than trickling out after an initial bang), the first so potently, pointedly conflicted, the latter so ultimately, utterly resigned. oh man, i do really love this band (adjective reuse alert), after all.]

sort of like the opposite of blackout. here's an artist who can do no wrong, in the eyes of practically everyone who cares, releasing a small-scale, unassuming, nonmonumental (as the new museum would have it) little record in what might in other instances have been the most discreet way possible. and of course it was a bombshell. or something. (no, not a bomb!) forget it, i'm not going to talk about in rainbows here. except just enough to get my job done: lame title. lousy artwork. fricking radiohead have only had one great cover (ok computer), which is really not reasonable. (thom yorke's cover was nice though.) i mean, who cares what the cover looks like, right? except that some people are, supposedly, going to actually buy the thing in stores. like i would (and surely will) - i bought every one of the last three rh albums on their release dates, largely by coincidence - might have done it this time too except i was in the great north woods... listening to the album.

[best track? tough choice - really anything except the first two, for which i don't particularly care and which just feel tacked on, and which i often skip. couldn't they just have kept it strictly on the mellow tip? would make for a stronger album, i think. might have actually succeeded in attracting less attention though (nobody hailing their 'return to rock' - why do i like this so much less than when they rocked the first time?) okay i think i have to say "videotape." this album's "scatterbrained" (which didn't occur to me until just now.) but, possibly, better. with a hint of "wolf at the door," lyrically.]

i love this album and i love this singer/band/project/person and i love this cover (finally!) i even kind of love the preposterous original cover (from last year's european edition), though this is at least as marked as an improvement as this version of the album itself is (three new songs, no tacked-on remixes; feels much more like a real album.) i used a discussion of the cover art as a lead-in to my just-finished amg review, so i don't want to dive back into it again, but essentially it's both a lovely cover in its own right and an unusually apt image to represent the album. i know you can't see it here, but look close and notice that the "snowflakes" are actually computer generated (though they look hand-drawn) pentagrams. one interesting thing about sally shapiro is how perfectly she/they/it bridge the still largely uncharted divide between two of my very favorite kinds of music in the 2000s: female-fronted scandinavian pop and dance-based electronica. the knife are the obvious parallel here, though they take a very different approach to the combination, and sound almost nothing alike. annie and robyn do something like this too, but their music is unique and personality-driven in a way that shapiro's is grand and sweepingly general in the manner of great disco and house.

[my two favorite songs would have to be the two covers, "anorak christmas" and the new "he keeps me alive," which are polar opposites in their emotional subject matter, but convey it equally immaculately. but i want to stress how well the album works as a continuous whole.]

there's a reason that i have such a hard time remembering why i love this album, even though i always know that i do. it's because what truly makes it great is the way it sounds, and that's a hard thing to hold in mind when it's not actually playing. spoon have been honing their craft for a long time now, and they've become so proficient - at making records of startling depth and immediacy, at embodying the deathless cool of the rock'n'roll ethos, at simultaneously refining and expanding their own inimitable style - that it's sometimes hard to appreciate how insanely good they still are.

they have had a slight difficulty in recent years coming up with the goods (okay, the greats) songwriting-wise, and if this isn't fully a return to the consistently popcraft of girls can kill (mind, it's not necessarily trying to be) there are at least a pair of effortless pop corkers (the pure-pop "underdog" and the "nothing but heartaches"/"king horse"-riffing "cherry bomb") and a few other forays toward tune-over-texture (...almost. if only britt bothered to enunciate a little better.) and if this band's achilles' heel (or lack thereof) is their tendency toward inscrutable dispassion, they finally, unexpectedly, manage to warm up and even, gasp, emote in the simply stunning last two songs, either of which could contend for spoon's sweetest punch since "anything you want." (and, needless to say, they both sound fantastic.)

as for the cover - well spoon have their style honed in that dept too, though although i dig the vibe i've gotta say this is my least favorite spoon cover since telephono: i don't like the font, i really don't like the title (though i liked how fast britt spit it out in concert), and the image, though interesting in theory, doesn't do much for me. always dig the white border though. (a la girls.) it's not bad, but i expect more from merge and these guys.

[best track: the 1 uptown, gush-flirting with some girl about how hot they are, on the ride home from the nearly-rained-out rockefeller park show this july, the day after the record came out.]

oh la la. nice one. this would work a lot better LP size, so you could really see the detail of the image - there's a lot in there. free-standing abacus, star-shaped rug, not sure what that is on the wall, is that an omnichord leaning against her chair? wonder whose flat that is? and where the tree-things are now. as it is (especially cd-booklet size) tracey almost gets lost in her own livingroom. (playroom?) the font is fun, though i kind of wish they'd written it out across the bottom. anyway.

this album has the nicest opening moments of this whole list, those sweet twinkly synths sound like waking up. i like how it's a electro/dance album that takes a couple songs to warm up to full-on dance, intersperses its bangers with its ballads and ends on an anthem rather than comedown. great to hear her working with some hip minimal/micro-house names, but honestly, tracey could sing anything and i'll be happy. love her lyrics too.

["it's all true" is almost too perfect to adore; "grand canyon" and "raise the roof" tie for beautiful dance-world-love come-together mini-epics; "falling off a log" mixes modes and metaphors, might be the best microcosm of all.]

such a bizarre combination of big-deal concept and unassuming end result, no wonder people were underwhelmed or confused or worse. although the attention-grabbing star power of the legend-worthy allen/simonon rhythm section did help to make their mid-afternoon sxsw set one of the most transcendent musical experiences of my year, i can't pretend that it constitutes much more than a side helping of wtf to my appreciation for what is ultimately a quiet and quirky little damon albarn album, one i connected with a lot more than either gorillaz record, and certainly at least as much as mali music, if not as much as think tank, my still-reigning (i guess?) album-of-the-decade. it's an idiosyncratic record, but its the idiosyncrasies that do it for me. what can i say, i'm just a fanboy.

cover's pretty fabulous and fitting too, in concept and execution, though i don't love the typeface.

[best song: "green fields." ...above all things i've learned it's the honesty that secures the bond in the heart]

are they referencing the knife? i can't tell. this is a seriously weird and disturbing cover. (even more so cuz my copy doesn't have the name/title text, just an abrupt black stripe.) it doesn't look like anything i'm familiar with in terms of album covers, certainly not tmbg covers. in fact it's their first non-illustrated cover since john henry (1994) - (the only other one with a photograph is flood.) the interior images are just as scary. i don't know what to say.

and, coincidentally(?) it's their best album since john henry. hands down. a bit of careful pruning and interspersing a couple of tracks from the awesome if overgenerous bonus disc cast your pod... might have made it even stronger.

["climbing the walls." also, "the shadow government." and too many to choose from on the bonus disc.]

[ETA: just one more thing: my favorite mix of the year (just one): Dirty South Dance by A-Trak

like dave said i said i said, this year's night ripper. in some ways seemingly less original than girl talk's ballyhooed breakout (i mean, it's just a bunch of 1:1 mash-ups, isn't that so 2003?) but in another sense much more impressively conceived; just as compulsively listenable and if anything more flawlessly executed. nate patrin's knowledgeable and witty pitchfork review gives the low-down more eloquently and concisely than i should bother to paraphrase, but what a-trak has achieved here, with apparent effortlessness, is effectively what i strive for in my own most ambitious mixes: not only is it an absolutely killer dance mix, it's also a rigorous intellectual exposition and exploration of a specific musicological premise; in this case, the underexamined connections and countercurrents (and latent potential links) between two distinct genres, dirty south hip-hop and various strains of electronic dance music.

yeah, it's gimmicky and jokey enough to possibly give you the wrong idea about the ideological intentions of this mix (think what you want, but the amount of care a-trak clearly took in assembling it readily belies any hint of hipster irony or pandering), but it's still a startling and refreshingly different cover image. plus it's just fun.


Dave said...

Agreed on the Radiohead album's kind of off-putting 1-2, which had a weird effect on me when I first listened to it -- actually wasn't until I listened much less attentively that it started to grow on me (which was uh later that day, what I'm a sucker for NETHYPE). I was trying to fit two albums onto a CD-R (which is usually step 2 to purchasing it/them) and when I ran outta room immediately deleted "Bodysnatchers" then "15 Step." But I decided to just use a shorter album.

Ross said...

but In Rainbows (proper) fits perfectly onto a CD-R with In Rainbows (Bonus/Disc 2) - and "Mk 1" even sounds like an afterlude to "Videotape" (did i just make that word up? i didn't mean to.)

hey, you're not just a sucker, you're also a radiohead fan. i love how beloved this band is - it just feels really good for there to be _somebody_ that we can all more or less agree about.

it's not so much that they're impervious to criticism, but we all just seem to like them so much that we'd much rather enjoy them than quibble about them. [except, of course, for the people who "don't get it" - the nonfans - whom i have no problem with, but neither do i really care to listen to their opinions anyway.]

Ross said...

oh yeah - i think my favorite thing of the whole in rainbows phenomenon was seeing a virgin megastore staffer wearing an official, store-issued virgin t-shirt which just had the album cover on it (or maybe just the typography) - essentially, advertising for a record you couldn't even buy at their store!

Ross said...

update: having now purchased the physical album (for $9.99!), i like the cover art a lot more in person. also like the packaging idea, though i'm worried that the cardboard tab will get messed up easily (q.v. the sticker on the cover volta, which is still fine on my copy but that's only b/c i've barely used the cape.) and also i'm v. confused by the jewel case stickers - are we supposed to store it in a jewel case? then what do we do with the cardboard sleeve?