Well its well and truly the end of another year, i hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and i wish you a safe and happy New Years, and in looking back i have to say that this has been one of the best years for music in a while (sounds redundant i know...), but with the return of a number of high profile acts, some brilliant live shows and some exciting debuts - 2007 was one to remember and to celebrate. I've compiled my Top 15 Albums of the year.
15 – OKKERVIL RIVER - THE STAGE NAMES
After the success of 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, it seemed doubtful if not impossible to meet the expectations that had galvanised in the two years since its last release. To put it simply, The Stage Names had big shoes to fill.
What followed was an album equally ambitious in scope and sound, yet managing to distance itself from its predecessor. Where Black Sheep Boy mined folk Americana and its darker aspects, The Stage Names resonates with a whole lot more jubilance, unafraid to just rock out or celebrate with musical references.
Witness as the closing track passes with a jam on the Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’. While “Unless It’s Kicks” and “You Can’t Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man” in particular have a swagger reminiscent of classic British rock. That’s not to say the album is devoid of its gentler moments, “Savannah Smiles” is lead hand in hand by a xylophone melody and “A Girl In Port” uses warm brass to induce its hazy stupor.
Lyrically, frontman Will Sheff is on top form - a complex weave of character portraits in a vague narrative tapestry concerning the degradation of the famous and the lures of decadence.
Basically, Okkervil River have tread a very fine line between maintaining status quo and allowing breadth into their sound and style without losing fans.
KEY TRACKS: Our Life IS Not A Movie Or Maybe, Unless It’s Kicks, Plus Ones, You Can’t Hold The Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man
14 – EDITORS - AN END HAS A START
The Birmingham based collective have always been cast off as derivatives of the gloomy post-punk scene, and while their sophomore album received very mixed reviews from the press, An End Has A Start, is nothing if not ambitious.
It is an album that is, dare I say it, better than Interpol’s latest – their musical forebears. Where the American group sounded deadlocked between new directions and older requirements, Editors know what they want to sound like, and with ruthless determination.
Album opener “Smokers Outside The Hospital Doors” spearheads the meeting point between the gloomy aesthetics of their previous work with the stadium rock accessibility of Coldplay or U2.
Chiming guitars, singalong choruses and big drums don’t so much pepper the album as dominate it. So while its influences and style are, yes, derivative’ it is still an uplifting and energising experience. Editors aren’t out to reinvent the wheel by any means, but when the wheel is as thrilling, enjoyable and functional as this – does it really matter?
KEY TRACKS: Smokers Outside The Hospital Doors, And End Has A Start, The Racing Rats, Escape The Nest
13 – BJORK - VOLTA
The Icelandic songstress’ ninth studio album was widely regarded as a ‘return to form’ by the mainstream press. This is totally misleading.
Following on from the vocal only album Medulla and her soundtrack to Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, it was never Bjork’s form or quality that was in question; it is just that with Volta she has returned to the familiar sounding territory of her mid 90’s albums. Excited drum loops, breathy vocals and loosened artistic pretense.
While it’s true that a number of electronica based compositions mark the album, Volta is closer in spirit, and a natural successor, to its ‘experimental’ predecessors. It features a number of vocal and instrumental collaborators from all walks of life. From the much hyped Timbaland beats of “Earth Intruders” and “Innocence” to a duet with Antony “And The Johnsons” Hegarty on “The Dull Flame of Desire” along with a myriad of globe-trotting musicians.
To reiterate, Volta continues to prove that Bjork hasn’t so much carved a creative niche in the music industry, as hollowed out a cavernous ecology of musical freedom, expression and innovation.
Regardless of its heritage, the result is an album that will be lapped up by her long-term fans and perhaps even for those who often disregard Bjork will enjoy it. I’ll wager that when Bjork has finished belting out her headlining set for the Big Day Out, she’ll have more than a few new fans.
KEY TRACKS: Earth Intruders, Wanderlust, Innocence, Declare Independence.
12 - FOO FIGHTERS - ECHOES, SILENCE, PATIENCE & GRACE
Upon release, I was deceived into thinking that this was a Foo Fighters album by numbers. While it was certainly better than the double album flab of In Your Honour, it has only been with time that its charms have truly captured me.
Lead single ‘The Pretender’ was just the entrée, its splendid mix of surging dynamics and muscular chorus was just the beginning. As the album flows, with excellent pacing, from track to track it is clear that it is their strongest set of songs in nearly a decade.
The album presents a mellower tone too, but rather than force a facile split between anything as simplified as acoustic and electric, it provides a balance between the two; sometimes within just the one song such as “Let It Die” and its brutal juxtapositions.
While the group have more than proven themselves as adept writers and patrons of rock music, the closing tracks of the album display hidden depths and maturity. In particular, the entrance of piano into the Foo Fighters palette represents Grohl as aging statesmen of the rock world. He’s earned it.
KEY TRACKS: The Pretender, Come Alive, Stranger Things Have Happened, Statues
11 – COLD WAR KIDS - ROBBERS & COWARDS
Hailing from Fullerton, California – an area close to the vibrant Long Beach ska/punk scene - it’s amusing to imagine Cold War Kids fostering their musical individuality in such an environment. Even their band name and Mid-Western American influences are at immediate odds with the sunshine image of California.
On the other hand it is probably this opposition that engendered the strong character of the band, and their first album – easily one of the best debuts this year.
Bolstered by their eccentric live shows, the band has become one of the big buzz names of 2007.
The best way to summarise Robbers & Cowards’ unique appeal is to reprint what I wrote of their Hi-Fi Bar gig back in May,
“forthright with spare arrangements and narrative driven songs about kleptomania and working class despondence, as front man Nathan Willett confirmed on-stage, “most of our songs are stories.” Theirs is a strange style to pigeon-hole, but their appeal lies in the way they defy conventions in both song structure and lyrical temperament. ”
Willett’s voice is an important part of their sound, his wailing, bluesy voice gives an earthy dimension to their strange songs and arrangements. As he swoops to the upper registers of his voice on “Hang Me Up To Dry” “Hair Down” and “Passing The Hat” you can hear the lived-experience in his tone, real or imagined.
Cold War Kids are bound for big things if they can maintain their indie credentials and more importantly their individuality. But as their origins exhibit - if they managed to survive Fullerton, California, they can survive anything.
KEY TRACKS: We Used To Vacation, Hang Me Up To Dry, Hair Down, Hospital Beds
10 - PAIN OF SALVATION - SCARSICK
I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t see this album on any end of year lists except for mine. Does that speak to my musical quality? No, it speaks to the fashions of the times. This album deserves its spot, and earlier in the year would have ranked much higher.
If the name didn’t give it away, Pain of Salvation is a prog-metal band. One that, upon first inspection, ticks all the boxes headed ‘cliché. Hailing from Sweden, the album is (of course) the second concept album in a trilogy and visually the band is all long hair, tattoos and correspondingly bleak artwork. The group have it where it matters most though – the music.
From the burbling bass intro of the title track to the epic closure of “Enter Rain,” Scarsick is a powerful and engaging journey. Full of melody and ingenious arrangements it quickly washes away any preconceived notions of distorted guitar, double kick drums and guttural shouting. “Spitfall” digs at hip hop superstars and bling culture with its own equally mocking and ironic rap, “Disco Queen” contains the musical leanings of its title and “America” slyly parrots the very same Sondheim classic from West Side Story. Hardly your usual metal fare is it?
The variety showcased is thanks largely to the talents of one Daniel Gildenlow, something of a musical prodigy and the writer of the majority of the album’s lyrics and music.
Pain of Salvation don’t make concessions though, they don’t pander to the listener with appeals for liking their style and heritage, but for those who aren’t so musically narrow-minded and willing to explore and experience a voyage - they have just the ticket.
KEY TRACKS: Scarsick, Spitfall, America, Enter Rain
9. – RILO KILEY - UNDER THE BLACKLIGHT
Jenny Wilson and the Rilo Kileys…
It doesn’t quite have the same ring, let alone temperament, but as a spiritual successor to her solo album of last year, Rabbit Fur Coat - that’s what “Under The Blacklight” can sometimes sound like.
For some it is this feature that is the album’s greatest weakness, the proverbial ‘selling out’ as Jenny Wilson overtakes her long-time collaborator Blake Sennett, and moves into the spotlight. The move to a major label probably added to the chorus of diehards who complained about the album’s new focus, but their gripes may perhaps be the band’s gain.
Lewis, and the sun-blissed guitar pop that recalls Blondie and Fleetwood Mac at their finest, acting as the bait to a rewarding back catalogue as well as a bright, record-label-secure, future.
Whatever your opinion, the album sits humbly within the top ten because of its sexy, funky, summery set while containing a sinister darkness to its borders. For example, “Breakin’ Up” is every bit the saddened break up song lyrically speaking, but couches it in a sing-a-long chorus of back up singers and hummable guitar. Essentially the record manages to have it both ways, fun and easygoing on “The Moneymaker” and “Smoke Detector” without sacrificing the earnestness of “Dreamworld” and “Give A Little Love.”
Whether bandmates Blake Sennett, Pierre de Reeder and Jason Boesol have really been sidelined to Jenny Lewis, or whether they have only just clicked into the potential of promoting such a confident, likeable singer for their image is debatable. What isn’t debatable is the sheer enjoyability of Under The Blacklight to the ear. That is just fact.
Key Tracks: The Moneymaker, Breakin’ Up, Dejalo, Give A Little Love
8 – BRIGHT EYES - CASSADAGA
Of the two stylistic paths that Conor Oberst and his musical collective followed with 2005’s twin albums, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. It was clear that it was the latter’s stripped back, country tinged acoustics that better suited the band’s intentions. While the former’s heavy electronic bent attempted to match Conor Oberst’s vast lyrical and musical ambitions; it was IWAIM that justified them.
Cassadaga follows on from that album’s template but does everything bigger, lusher and more expansive. The best analogy is that if IWAIM was Oberst’s ‘New York City’ album, then Cassadaga is his ‘United States of America’ album. A state of the nation address, with a musical palette of breadth and depth to match Oberst’s lyrics concerning the “measure of man.” Despite the rich contributions from various collaborators – make no mistake, this is Oberst’s album.
The lyrics grasp heady concepts such as religion, balance and belonging in a series of insightful character portraits and ruminations. World weary and wisened, it’s as if Bright Eyes are entering their renaissance years – and Oberst is only the ripe old age of 27!
The opening sounds of sampled telephone conversations with members of a spiritual commune, coupled with an orchestra tuning up, set the tone for the journey ahead, and what a journey. Its wordy bulk feels much longer than its 60 minutes length, and its impacting seriousness ensure an emotionally engaging, if draining, experience.
But when “Soul Singer In A Session Band” rallies towards its final chorus, or when “No One Would Riot For Less” flourishes into an orchestral coda – the tingle at the base of your spine lets you know you’re listening to something special.
KEY TRACKS: Four Winds, Soul Singer In A Session Band, No One Would Riot For Less, Lime Tree
WHAT!? 'Where are the rest?' i hear you wail, fear not i've broken up my list into two sections to save you all from falling asleep at your keyboards, so tune in next time for Part 2.
The List So Far...