By The Staff
50 :: Arve Henriksen
Eat your fucking heart out, Enya. Arve Henriksen’s Strjon is the bracing nature trek that every New Age album wants to be but never is, because they’re never this taxing or unpredictable. Utilizing New Age trademarks (a few world music affectations, woodwinds, woodwind synth patches) Supersilent’s trumpeter trades out the base sentiment for a sense of awe, and maybe a little fear; whether it’s “Ascent” or “Leaf and Rock” or “Twin Lake,” spare accompaniment trudges forward semi-rhythmically through breathtaking ‘scapes while Henriksen’s trumpet provides the inhales and gasps of his near breathless reaction. This is man vs. nature from a man that accepts nature’s right to win.
As I write this, it is snowing outside my house. Like any healthy-minded Ohioan, I loathe snow. But I don’t really loathe it now, Strjon whispering over my headphones. In fact, I start to think about how snow is a weird and amazing thing, drops of water crystallized into patterns staggering for their complexity and immaculate order, not one the same. That cliché doesn’t feel like a cliché any more because I’m listening to this music and my mind really starts to fall into that truth. It’s a microcosmic mystery that’s a hell of a lot bigger than me, to say nothing of the macrocosmos; this is part of what hippies and John Tesh see as magical but their music takes a tinkly piss on. Strjon treats it as both natural and sacred; while I’m not about to go play in that cold white shit burying my lawn, I feel moved by it and this music that flows from the inexplicable, from the crags and peaks and snowflakes that defy their own randomness and sing.
49 :: Angels of Light
We Are Him
Never got around to this, and damn us for it. The review would have been an extravaganza featuring, but not limited to, a Michael Gira interview, a Scott Reid tower of lyrical explication, a personal but wholly infallible parsing of genre tropes and interminable Young God canonization to determine the current state of Gira’s entelechial realization as silverfox Eli Wallach sage for West Coast Americana, and perhaps some dancing bears. And Nick Cave in the corner, fretting over the incomprehensible shrivel of his wee-wee. All of which I will fail to offer here.
Because never has Gira—career going on twenty-five years—sounded so black and white within the corral of one disc and one hour; there is no rest, no middle ground, only the relentless submission of the listener to headlock highs and illusory lows. I’m reluctant to call this record punishing, let alone the most punishing thing to come out in 2007, and would probably be flayed for attempting anything brazen like, oh mercy, recontextualixing desperation as a single source of abrasion. But here is the grind Grinderman could only apply to their moustaches and nocturnal emissions, and it’s harnessed in a Delphic fable of fatherhood.
Yes, Gira has aged, married, procreated, but whatever tenderness that may prescribe is punctured by fatalism; this is wisdom, “Black River Song” as thunderclaps, “Promise of Water” howling “just as it was is just how it will be” over rattlesnake skin and doped chorus. “We Are Him” struggles through pistachio-green dreck and reverb before recycling every tom-heavy stomp that killed the Swans in ’98: this is desperate culmination, Gira old enough to accept the tension between his role as breadwinner and his notoriously downer past, siphoning that into one of the year’s most brutal sixty minutes.
48 :: Iron & Wine
The Shepherd's Dog
The Shepherd’s Dog isn’t the first time Iron & Wine’s stormed out of the gate with drums (and blunts) blazing. The band’s recent fascination with percussion played an explosive role on the Woman King (2005) EP’s title track, but that was only foreshadowing: this is the madness. It would’ve been easy for Iron & Wine to stay a solo project, for Sam Beam to grow his beard and pluck his guitar and soundtrack intimate Zach Braff moments for the rest of his career. Nobody would’ve minded; if you can track down acoustic versions of these songs, they’re arguably as strong as the fleshed-out beasts that appear here. But they’re far less fascinating. The Shepherd’s Dog is a real mongrel, a blend of Eastern mysticism, fuzz-rock and even dub reggae filtered through Beam’s angelic folk. Take two puffs and pass: this is heady, cluttered stuff, sometimes too much so. But it’s forgivable given the urgency of “Boy With a Coin” or the haunting harmonies of “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” a song that finds the singer—who spends the album filtering his vocals, as well—in fine form. Though the fossils of other artists (Califone, Paul Simon) are buried deep here, Iron & Wine is still walking the earth, all claws and teeth and hunger.
47 :: Amy Winehouse
Back to Black
Winehouse was not always liked. She broke in the UK as a singer-songwriter with jazz inflections, ’50s inspired dress sense, and a big attitude. She was quickly dismissed as a fake: nothing more than a soft-focus coffee table artist like Norah Jones or Michael Bublé, her potty mouth was considered affected and—despite a Mercury Prize Nomination—it was felt she and her overly petulant songs about sluts, exes, and wimps had overstayed their welcome. Then, after a shitty relationship, an ugly break-up, and many, many, many drinks, Winehouse re-emerged, metamorphosized into a dark nightingale: tattooed to shit with a monstrous beehive and the kind of lollipop body Nicole Ritchie and Posh Spice would balk at. Things had definitely not been going well.
The opening single “Rehab” lay her cards on the table. Bolstered by punchy bottom-heavy Motown production courtesy of Mark Ronson, it got everybody chanting along to the sardonic bravado of the chorus while elsewhere the lyrical anger had turned inward: “I’m gonna lose my baby / that’s why I always keep a bottle near.” Just listen to the song again. How pained does she sound when she sings “I just need a friend” despite the funky soup of Stax handclaps, solid soul brass, and honky-tonk pianos that rattle underneath? She’s baring her soul, and though we come away remembering “No, no, no,” that’s a sly trick.
As her life spirals more out of control the kohl eyeliner and bird’s nest hair seem more like a costume—the bitchy doo wop of “Me And Mr. Jones” or the morally bankrupt “You Know I’m No Good” sound like an introvert play-acting the battle axe. It is when she confronts the listener with her vulnerability, her truth, and her voice that it truly feels like a punch. Take the title song: a jet-black hearse, it is cold, funereal, and the plainest bid for dignity in the face of all that is undignified. Or “Love Is A Losing Game,” a Roberta Flack inspired paean that encapsulates and seethes with the hope and despair of lovelessness and loneliness. Both songs shock more than any amount of cursing, drinking, or drug-taking could. As soul and R&B music become more of a production line of vocalists preoccupied with bling and fragrance launches Winehouse ain’t faking shit.
46 :: PJ Harvey
The first thing you should know is that White Chalk isn’t a rock album. The second thing is that it just may be the record that fully cements Harvey’s legacy as one of the most Important rock musicians of the last 15 years. Over that time she has gone from the militant rock of 1992’s still-astonishing Dry—spiritual godmother to hundreds of Carrie Brownsteins, Liz Phairs, and Karen Os—to a sort of ghostly, restrained child figure on White Chalk. It’s anomalous even in the context of her more recent work, yet there’s much about the album that makes perfect sense. From the bare, brutal “Oh My Lover” (off Dry) through the swagger of “Man-Size” (from 1993’s Rid of Me) and even perhaps the directness of “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” (off 2004’s Uh Huh Her) Harvey has always had a way of absolutely eviscerating the listener with her emotional intensity. White Chalk distills this and takes it to an extreme where she needs nothing more than simple repeating piano figures and the upper end of her register to demolish anything we took for granted.
It took me a while to register all that, but songs like “Dear Darkness,” “When Under Ether,” and the title track all now seem to count pretty high among the best songs Harvey has ever put to tape. These songs are devastating without resorting to the histrionics (both vocal and guitar-based) that marked her early work. Harvey can now hit you in the gut with just a few choice words, a simple chord change, and a bit of Flood’s production magic (see “The Devil”). It’s the shortest, sparsest, spookiest record that Harvey has ever produced. The third thing? It just might also be the best.
45 :: Dizzee Rascal
Maths + English
Maths + English represents one of my favorite peculiarities of pop music: when a relatively established artist makes the record of their career, and nobody cares about it. Not that people ignored Dizzee Rascal this year, exactly: it makes the lower rungs of a lot of other year end lists, and the blazing “Sirens” single/video was impossible to overlook. Still, I can’t help feeling that this album has been given short shrift come the final tally. For one thing, the beats are out of control: the hazy, new age whoosh of “World Outside” gives way to doppler sirens; “Sirens” is all gun shots, guitar sludge and Bomb Squad pilfering; “Where Da G’s” is the great garage and crunk synthesis that shouldn’t happen (it helps that UGK brings it all home with a pair of peripatetic verses). But it’s still Dizzee’s album, recalling no one so much as Jay-Z on the aforementioned “G’s” and throughout much of the album. So where’s the love? Probably all in the UK, the only place this album is available in shops.
44 :: Róisín Murphy
Despite more or less universal acclaim from all fans of intelligent Europop, Róisín Murphy’s Overpowered still hasn’t been officially released in the U.S. This only starts to make sense when one considers the static, assembly line nature of what passes for a commercial North American diva these days. Compared to the likes of Beyonce, Rihanna, or even (groan) Fergie, Róisín Murphy is completely friggin bizarre, an alien beamed in from an alternate pop universe with zero chance of radio exposure.
Firstly, she’s unafraid to look completely ridiculous, reveling in Jean-Paul Gaultier meets Alice in Wonderland-style costumes in her videos and in Overpowered’s liner notes. Then there’s the issue of her lyrics, which while not above the standard lovey-dovey fare, more often sound like GZA soundbytes minus the chess references or like Andrew Bird post-industry (e.g. “As science struggles on to try and explain / oxytoxins flowing ever into my brain”). Clearly she’s a touch bonkers, and her audience is richer for it.
But she also has a brassy voice capable of belting it out in the service of hella catchy pop songs equally accessible to the dancefloor or (in a perfect world) the radio. Her cadre of producers includes such notables as Richard X, Andy Cato, and Ill Factor, all of whom pile on disco flourishes, beds of strings, synths, appropriate vocoder, and in the case of closer “Scarlet Ribbon,” convincing dub bass. The result is a textbook dance-pop manifesto, a multi-hued funhouse of sound where nearly every track is a potential single.
David M. Goldstein
43 :: Victor Berman
Arriving At Night
I chose Arriving at Night as my own personal album of the year not despite that it’s an instrumental record of unobtrusive electronica, but, in a way, because of it. The album is almost as old as the year, and has inhabited secondary listening status throughout; it’s been a wingman on a year’s flight through my mailbox’s detritus and delight. Sure, Bermon was gently placed nearby when Battles, Parts & Labor, or Deer Tick crashed through my listening regimen and became the new album over which to drool and analyze with picky fingers. But when my dissection was done and staleness inevitably ossified each listen, it was to Bermon that I returned. Each CMG writer tasked with submitting a personal list for 2007, I always knew Arriving at Night would be on mine. But it was only when I was looking at the year’s output together that I realized that Bermon has solidified his place among albums to which I’ll be returning for many years. There are few other albums on my list about which I can assume that.
As I said, perhaps it’s because of Arriving at Night’s sense of accommodation. It’s not that there isn’t exploration; each song fleshes out its confines, intersperses polyrhythmic (not to be confused with “messy”) patterns with the gentle chimes and reorganized guitars of laptop pastiche. But it’s more for the fact that it stands proudly beside those simply stated criteria and assembles a near-perfect collection of instrumental pop songs that—from its production, to its sublime assemblage of melodies, down to the minutest of songwriting decisions and deviations—is a testament to the prevailing value of musicianship over hype or fashion. Bermon’s unblemished debut is pure listening joy.
42 :: Les Savy Fav
Let's Stay Friends
Les Savy Fav blindsided me with this one. The album is good, sure, but nobody was expecting dude with party pants to strip off and get down so convincingly, and have his band level out all these good ‘choons to boot. But this they did, and all twelve tracks on this record bust the six-year wait like it was hogwash hokum and yesterday’s news.
It’s amoral and apocalyptic and totally awesome, right, because it’s the sound and the science, twin-folded and downpat: unrelenting and rude, unsettling when soft and just the right side of self-aware. It knows what it is and it knows you know too and it gets why that’s some sort of insane meta to be slinging in what boils down to a bunch of hook-heavy pop songs. This is why Let’s Stay Friends is maybe their best record yet: it makes you ignorant. It operates outside their catalogue, the inch-space, the whole revolution and a bit in increments: it takes all that and twists it, turns it inside-out and then tricks it through a variety of circus mirrors till it’s all rainbow-washed and super-sized sunshine, glimmer sparkles there in the flashy riffs of “Patty Lee,” or the overdriven bass that beats into “Raging in the Plague Age,” taking it squarely on its own terms: “I hold my breath, you hit my chest.”
Les Savy Fav is a great band, and Let’s Stay Friends is their righteous, ritzy drama theatre, the sound of dark imaginations stretching for the purple rains. It establishes a new legend and states a new promise and, for once, makes it as compelling and vivid as anything that came before. Let’s Stay Friends isn’t just a “comeback”—it completely redresses the balance.
41 :: Blitzen Trapper
Wild Mountain Nation
Wild Mountain Nation is a whirling, electric vortex that snatches up the dust-caked debris of some of this century’s grittiest musical artifacts: let’s say early ’90s lo-fi slacker rock and Harry Smith’s epochal folk recordings among others. I’m convinced these high plains drifters have been spending their free weekends in Sedona, Arizona (by most accounts the vortex capital of the world), soaking up its natural energies and getting all wrinkly-skinned in the Jacuzzi—because that would at least explain where they got all this unbridled energy that bucks and whinnies until the prospect of saddling it sounds like a death wish. For every ear-splitting melee of VU-stained noise-guitar and right-angled riffs (“Devil’s A-Go-Go,” “Woof & Warp of the Quiet Giant’s Hem”), though, there’s an infectious country jam (“Country Caravan,” “Wild Mountain Nation”) to pick up the shattered-as-fuck pieces and cozy its coy little rump up to yours beside the campfire. So, fuck “New Weird America”: Wild Mountain Nation’s serrated licks would have Hugo Chavez bleeding red, white, and blue.