Right, no time to waste if you're going to survive this epic entry, here's the rest of the list.
7. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
It is never possible to predict what course Wilco will take, especially considering the dramatic leaps of faith – not to mention line-up changes – they’ve made over the years. The only predication is that they will change.
Sky Blue Sky evolved out of Wilco’s live show, and you can hear it in the cohesion and balance of the compositions. Where previous opuses such as “Hotel Yankee Foxtrot” and predecessor “A Ghost Is Born” capitalised on the studio setting, their latest feels, if not merely mellower, then more organic and accessible; particularly in the guitars. The addition of jazz luminary Nels Cline to the line up is showcased from the outset. His warm, melodic yet clearly virtuosic solo on “Either Way” sets the stage for the guitar histrionics on the rest of the album, peaking with the six-stringed harmonies of “Impossible Germany.”
As much as these songs have been thoroughly road tested on extensive tours and in rehearsal, some feel born straight out of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s bedroom, demonstrated in the lo-fi intimacy of “Please Be Patient With Me” and “Leave Me (Like You Found Me).” However, the focus is clearly on the energy and synergy of the band setting, you can almost hear the jubilation in “Side With The Seeds” or when “Walken” skyrockets off into its heady rock-out climax.
Once again, Wilco prove themselves to be one of America’s finest musical exports. The front image of the album sees a single bird, lone in the sky, facing a thick, blurred flock of smaller fowl. It may be an easy and obvious analogy to make, but Wilco are that lone bird - soaring effortlessly and elegantly in the face of mainstream music with startling ubiquity and commitment.
KEY TRACKS: Impossible Germany, Sky Blue Sky, Please Be Patient With Me, Walken
6. Bat For Lashes – Fur and Gold
Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke described a track this year that was so good that it “made me feel like a wolf.” He was describing the brisk auto-harp and wailing falsetto of the equestrian ballad “Horse & I” – the opening track from Bat For Lashes’ debut album. Yorke, like most who first hear this track, was sold.
The track’s progenitor is English/Pakistan born Natasha Khan, leader of the female Brighton based four piece Bat For Lashes. Sounding as much the kook as she looked it, Khan (and co.) emerged from 2007’s musical landscape from seemingly nowhere, fully formed and provocative.
In image and sound, Bat For Lashes borrow more than a few pages from the books of Bjork, Tori Amos, Kate Bush & PJ Harvey, but even If Bat For Lashes’ influences are written blatantly on their sleeve, then at least they live up to that weighty heritage. For once, here is a band whose songs are as good as their mystic image.
It’s as if Khan and company are inviting us for the first time into their own fully realised world; a magical, mysterious place of wizards, bats and wolves - but where the poignant anchors of reality still apply. At heart these are still songs of love and loss. “Sad Eyes”, “Prescilla” and “What’s a girl to do” are a testament to that writing: spacious without feeling airy, dark yet funky, and honest without sacrificing quirkiness.
To put it simply, Fur And Gold contains 11 good reasons to introduce yourself to the band’s feminine fantasy and wild whimsy.
KEY TRACKS: Horse And I, Tahiti, Sad Eyes, Prescilla
5. Sigur Ros – Hvarf/Heim
Applied to nearly any other musical act, Hvarf/Heim’s formula would seem like a mere stop gap - six acoustic recordings of older tracks and five new(ish) studio recordings of live rarities. What sounds like two EPs turns out to actually be an extension of the Icelandic group’s unique style. It’s at once a tribute to long term fans as well as an intriguing proposition for those yet to induct themselves into Sigur Ros’ world.
Touted as an accompaniment to their tour documentary, “Heima,” this two disc set is not the best soundtrack of the year, but instead an aural extension of the film’s varied performances. New track “I Gaer” was recorded in an abandoned fishing factory featured in the movie, while the acoustic version of “Samskeyti” is the same that runs behind the film’s credits.
Even without the epic landscapes of Iceland to accompany them, the Hvarf disc’s electric soundscapes easily conjure sweeping vistas. In particular “I Gaer” sounding like the soundtrack to a Tim Burton film before launching into a spacey masterpiece. Meanwhile “Hljomalind” is as close to a three-chord pop song as the group are going to get. Meanwhile Heim’s low-key acoustic approach proves that at their heart of their lush arrangements lie very solid foundations. The homely approach to “Staraflur” and “Vaka” reveal a new fragility to their sound.
I’ve already heralded “Heima” as the music doco/live performance of the year, so it should only make sense that this “stop gap” should receive the same acclaim.
KEY TRACKS: Hljomalind, I Gaer, Hafsol, Staraflur, Agaetis Byrjun.
4. Arctic Monkeys – Your Favourite Worst Nightmare
An early contender for album of the year considering its February release, the Sheffield quartet’s sophomore album could have been forgiven if it was over taken during the course of the next few months. Instead it proved its vitality, a tough set of songs sounding just as punchy and engaging on their 100th play through as their first. For all the harsher takes on the Monkeys’ debut style – namely choppy guitars, stop start dynamics and the occasional shouty chorus – it proved the writing was as strong as the riffs. Messrs. Alex Turner, Jamie Cook, Matt Helders and new bassist Nick O’Malley fit more into the three minute pop format than most groups achieve in a whole album.
“Brianstorm” manages to flesh out a character portrait of a suave know it all in under three minutes, while “D is for Dangerous” breathlessly rhymes its arrival and departure in just two minutes fifteen seconds. The record never feels rushed though; it’s just that the ideas span the breadth and depth of a newly mature approach concerning frontman Turner’s lyrics.
Where debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” could at times sound like the small-town ramblings of a man yearning for something bigger than the hype; “Your Favourite Worst Nightmare” finds Turner having broken free to the world at large with the added confidence to rail against this same hype and the media that generate it. As “Teddy Picker” wryly questions, “Do you reckon that they make them take an oath?/That says that ‘we are defenders/ of any poser or professional pretender around.’” To hear the way this line wraps rhythmically around the music is a far different experience to reading it and a microcosm for the Monkeys’ overall appeal.
Gone is the band that had to overcome scepticism regarding their internet fad origins, in place is a band – despite their youth – ready to take the bigger world stage by their own means. They make it look easy really… witty, observational lyrics, smart structure and great tunes.
KEY TRACKS: Brianstorm, Fluorescent Adolescent, If You Were There, Beware, 505
3. Porcupine Tree – Fear of A Blank Planet
Porcupine Tree deserve global stardom, a band every bit as excellent as their name is horrible. With a healthy career spanning nearly two decades they have remained (intentional or otherwise) on the cusp of international success. Despite their origins in Pink Floyd mimicry and progressive metal, upon hearing their music it is difficult to argue why they don’t deserve the greater musical acclaim that eludes them.
Much like Pain of Salvation earlier in the list, indie darlings and top forty pop fans will cringe at the thought of Porcupine Tree’s credentials, but again the band deserve much better than first impressions. Make no mistake; “Fear Of A Blank Planet” is every bit that prog rock essential - the concept album - but the concept is one that taps so well into the zeitgeist that it never sounds like the 70’s timepiece that its moniker denotes.
The album deals with themes of lamentable youth culture, the influence of technology and drugs, boredom, apathy and despondence. It’s all in there in the opening title track, “X Box is a god to me/a finger on the switch/my mother is a bitch/my father gave up every trying to talk to me.” As these lyrics demonstrate too, frontman Steven Wilson never sounds crotchety or whining about “the kids of today” precisely because he takes the point of view of his subjects. “In school I don’t concentrate/and sex is kinda fun/but just another one/ of all the empty ways of using up my day.”
Matching the drama and seriousness punch for punch is the music. Effortlessly produced and mixed by, yes, Steven Wilson, it alternatively thunders along with jagged guitars and pounding rhythms such as on the title track and “Sleep Together”, or providing ambient introspection such as on “My Ashes” and “Sentimental.” In structure and style – this is a band who sounds like they’ve been playing together for over fifteen years – if not more.
If you need any more proof of Porcupine Tree’s genius, there is the album centrepiece “Anesthetize.” An epic 18 minute suite that shifts from sonorous ambience to brooding heavy metal and back again while managing to indulge Rush’s Alex Lifeson with a guitar solo. It has to be heard to be believed.
“Fear Of A Blank Planet” is a great record from a band who have had many and evidence that fantastic music can still be found, and indeed thrive, outside of the mainstream.
KEY TRACKS: Fear Of A Blank Planet, Anesthetize, Sentimental
2. Bloc Party – A Weekend In The City
If nothing else, Bloc Party are in the number two slot because they are probably one of the hardest working bands in music today. They may not have done the most touring of all acts in the last year, though they have toured extensively; they may not have proffered any major political or welfare cause, though they’ve dipped in with contributions here and there – and they may not have pleased fans and critics with their new musical direction, though they have won many more and the respect of still more. No, Bloc Party is here because of all these things as well as their prolific musical output.
To put it in context: on the eve of “A Weekend In The City” the band had not only opted for a new trajectory for their style and sound, but had provided enough studio material for a whole another album’s worth of B sides, and as if that wasn’t enough, managed to record a brand new single, Flux, and re-release “A Weekend In The City” (for a third time) with it included in the tracklist before the year’s end. The words ‘ruthless’ and ‘ambition’ come to mind.
All this forgets the actual music, which never lacked in quality, both “A Weekend In The City” and its plethora of B sides are filled with invention and polish. Some complaints certainly find validation, such as Jackknife Lee’s sleek production or Kele Okereke’s occasionally tongue garbling lyrics (At Les Trois Garcons/we meet at precisely/ 9 o’clock/I order the foie gras/and I eat it/with complete disdain) – but at the end of the day, the stylistic shift in both musical and lyrical tone kept things fresh.
In other words, this is a brave album. The album’s opening line of “I am trying to be heroic in an age of modernity” is the mission statement. A band brave enough to criticise youth culture on “Uniform,” only to turn around on the following track “On” and celebrate the joys of cocaine. An album daring enough to provide voice for second generation immigrants in the UK (“Where is Home?”) and a subtle gay anthem (“I Still Remember”). To have the guts to question England’s politics on “Hunting For Witches” and respond in kind with the rough dance abandon of “The Prayer.”
On its musical merits alone, “A Weekend In The City” was always going to rank highly with its contemporary mixture of club beats and indie guitar grafted to lyrics that critique the state of today’s youth and obsessive pop culture; but “A Weekend In The City” is merely a part of the overall phenomenon, representing how a band should be doing things in the rapidly changing music industry.
While the music industry may be in a state of flux (pun intended), Bloc Party continue to represent the exciting hybridisations and cultural musings that can spring from it. And the best part? New single “Flux” marks the end of the group’s adventures in 2007 but also towards a vast resource of untapped potential.
KEY TRACKS: Song For Clay (Disappear Here), Uniform, The Prayer, Flux
1 – Radiohead – In Rainbows.
It was a no-brainer really, a new Radiohead album is always big news. But a new Radiohead album that is possibly their best since the epoch-making Ok Computer and a new album that stirred the music industry with its controversial release only added to its importance.
Certainly, releasing music over the internet direct to the fans wasn’t an industry first; but asking punters to establish their own price tag was. Their gamble paid off, with initial calculations estimating the band’s earnings at around 5 million pounds. Never had cutting out the middleman been so lucrative.
While it’s still too early to tell whether the release of In Rainbows is the beginning of some bigger, longer lasting changes to the music industry, it was still the most thrilling event in music news for 2007.
Even if it was delivered by more conventional means, In Rainbows’ sheer quality would have ensured its rank as the best album of the year. You probably don’t need me of all people to tell you how good it is (if you do just check my older post, one of the millions on the internet concerning the album).
The arrival of the deluxe ‘diskbox’ was the best Christmas present ever, lush packaging featuring artwork, copies of the album on vinyl, lyrics and best of all, a second disc of tracks that while obviously were left off the tracklist to ensure its concise brevity and style, are no less life-changing.
The controlled menace of “Up On The Ladder”, the vulnerability of “Last Flowers” and the unadultered beauty of “4 Minute Warning.” Here are songs that compliment the initial tracklisting – and now that its available in cd stores it means both the rarity of this second disc and that the album proper will be heard by an even wider audience. There really is no excuse not to hear Radiohead’s latest. It ensures, as does every year the band release new material, that they are the greatest band in the world. No surprises.
...that list in full.